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Brian McGrory

Grief beyond measure

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / September 7, 2011

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In something of a gray business, mediation and arbitration, Ken Feinberg is a splash of tropical color. He talks in a stentorian voice, like a Shakespearean actor. He says what’s on his very active mind. He is blunt even when diplomacy might be the better card to play.

Feinberg, a Brockton-born lawyer, was the special master of the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund, in charge of distributing government-funded settlements to the families of the dead and those who were injured in the attacks, provided they agreed not to sue the airlines whose planes were turned into missiles.

He personally met with relatives of more than half of the deceased. “They wanted to be heard,’’ he said one recent day. “They weren’t asking for money, but to validate the loved one who they lost.’’

To that end, he watched videos of weddings that they brought. He flipped through scrapbooks with commendations, medals, and awards. One widow of a New York firefighter brought her 11 children to his office - “A good Catholic family,’’ Feinberg said.

After 33 months, he reached settlements with 97 percent of the families. Just 94 other families decided to pursue litigation. The fund also provided money to nearly 3,000 people who were injured. In total, the government distributed just under $7 billion, all of it tax-free.

Feinberg’s final report provides a vivid portrait of loss, done in Feinberg’s trademark way: by the numbers. Some 65 percent of the victims were between 31 and 50 years old. Seventy-six percent of those killed were men. Sixty-four percent of the dead were married. Seventy-two percent had at least one dependent. Nearly 39 percent made more than $100,000 a year.

But after all the stories, all the grief, all the decisions about who got what, Feinberg sat in his Washington office one recent morning and recalled an encounter that haunts him after all these years.

There was an elderly woman whose son had died in New York. She never responded to any of the solicitations about the settlements, failed to return any of the paperwork, and wouldn’t so much as take a phone call from Feinberg’s office.

As the deadline loomed to file for funds in late 2003, Feinberg personally paid her a visit. He remembers driving deep into Brooklyn, down a modest street to a small apartment house, and climbing stairs to where she lived. She met him at the door.

They sat at her kitchen table as he explained that she was entitled to the money. Congress had passed the legislation. The president signed it. The average payment to a survivor would be more than $2 million.

“ ‘Mrs. Jones,’ I said, ‘the fund is going to expire,’ ’’ Feinberg recalled. “ ‘I’ll help you fill out the forms.’ ’’

He explained that virtually every family of all those killed in the attacks accepted the settlement. Most survivors needed the money to live. Of those who didn’t, many used it for charitable work in the name of their loved one. She should sign the form and do with the settlement whatever she chose, he said. She looked Feinberg in the eye and replied, “I lost my son and you’re here to talk about money?’’

He protested, telling her, “Mrs. Jones, I can’t get your son back,’’ but she was unmoved. “It broke my heart,’’ Feinberg said. “Grief can paralyze people. It was my single biggest disappointment in administering the fund.’’

Feinberg knows of just one other survivor - a priest who lost his brother - who declined any compensation.

Coming up on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, Feinberg has no idea what became of the woman in Brooklyn, but he does know this: She never sued and she never filed for a settlement. When she was offered a couple of million dollars, she showed him to the door.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.