The judge overseeing the case heard the heart-wrenching stories from 11 plaintiffs randomly chosen among those who volunteered to speak at the fairness hearing. Among them were:

Keith Delmar, a 35-year-old former FDNY firefighter from Farmingville, who said he thought the proposed $657-million settlement would provide "fair and reasonable compensation for my injuries" and support his wife and two children that his ¾ disability does not cover.

"I used to have this tough-guy image, but now I'm a stay-at-home dad," Delmar said."

Delmar, the first speaker to address the judge, described how he was the picture of good health and physical fitness in the years before the terrorist attack - a star high school athlete, a U.S. Marine and a firefighter who was appointed to the FDNY about seven months before Sept. 11, 2001.

After the planes struck the towers, Delmar said he worked at the site doing search and rescue work at Ground Zero, and then looking for human remains at Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island.

He told the judge he cried when he was found out he had to go on permanent disability. "I feel like my dream of being a fireman was taken from me," he said.

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Now he takes a half dozen medications for his respiratory ailments and struggles to pay for them and said he's confident the proposed settlement would justly compensate his family.

Michael D'Amato, a labor foreman from Bellmore who says he has seen his earnings plummet annually from $140,000 to $40,000 because of illnesses related to his 9/11 recovery work. After the hearing, he called the judge's ruling a "positive" development.

D'Amato told the judge he has had financial difficulties and health woes too.

Before 9/11, "I never had a doctor," D'Amato explained. Now, he sees a doctor every week. If he had to go back to do the recovery effort again, he said, "I wouldn't do it again."

William Michael Moore, 55, was in the Air National Guard out of Gabreski in Westhampton Beach and worked on the pile. Since then, he said he had to retire from a home in a community near the base and move to New Jersey from his home in Long Island, where lived for a long time and went to school at Stony Brook.

He said he had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills because he now suffers from a connective tissue disease and other ailments.

He was happy with the ruling. "A lot of people were going to be cheated," he said, adding he would like to see the judge reconsider how to determine who among the claimants deserves what. "The current method for determining people's ailments is inappropriate," he said.