Rescue workers remove debris as they search for survivors at...

Rescue workers remove debris as they search for survivors at Ground Zero. (Sept. 15, 2001) Credit: Newsday/Viorel Florescu

A historic $650-million settlement of health claims against New York City by Ground Zero responders has received enough support to take effect by a razor-thin margin, according to a report filed Friday afternoon in federal court in Manhattan.

Settlement administrator Matthew Garretson said 10,043 of 10,563 eligible plaintiffs signed up for the deal, exceeding the minimum threshold of 95 percent with eight claimants to spare. The deadline to sign up passed Tuesday at midnight, after two extensions to give lawyers time to persuade more clients to join.

The final number was 95.1 percent of the thousands of police officers, firefighters and other workers who sued the city and its contractors for illness and diseases they claim stemmed from their work on the smoldering pile in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

Checks are expected to flow before or near the beginning of the year, with the first claimants who opted in getting paid first.

The deal, quickly lauded by political figures and the lawyers who hammered it out, culminated an agonizing process in which many claimants had to decide whether to settle despite the fact that they wanted more, said John Feal of Nesconset, an advocate for the workers who settled his case.

"This is the toughest decision these responders had to make since Sept. 11 when they ran to the buildings," Feal said.

"This settlement is a fair and just resolution of these claims, protecting those who came to the aid of this city when we needed it most," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who drew enmity from many responders for spending millions to fight the suits.

"Our clients sacrificed their safety and health to come to the urgent need of their fellow citizens, their city and our nation, and providing them with compensation for their resulting injuries and suffering is long overdue," said William Groner of Worby, Groner, Edelman & Napoli Bern, the firm that represented nearly 10,000 claimants and stands to make more than $100 million in fees.

The $650 million will be distributed to individuals in four "tiers" based on the severity of their illness and injuries and other factors. It will be supplemented by $47.5 million from the Port Authority and other funds. Claimants also will be allowed to apply to a proposed federal compensation fund, if it is passed in the Senate.

The city and its insurer, whose legal defenses in the suits were never resolved by presiding U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, insisted on 95 percent agreement to finalize the deal. In the final tally, 98.1 percent of those with the most severe "Tier 4" injuries settled, but only 87.4 percent of those getting the lowest payments signed on.

One late decider, former police officer Glen Klein of Centereach, 52, who finally opted in to the deal Nov. 11, said his five-figure offer for various respiratory and other problems was inadequate, but he hopes federal funds will help and he didn't think he had a choice.

"It's not that I was really happy, but there's no other game in town," Klein said.

John Walcott, an ex-cop from Rockland County who believes he contracted leukemia on the pile, did not join up despite a six-figure estimate of what he would have received. After years of fighting, he said, he was skeptical of signing a release that said the estimate wasn't a guarantee.

"The whole thing to me was too uncertain," he said. "If you don't agree with the amount they decide to give you, it's 'Too bad, Charlie.' "

Those who didn't settle can go forward with their suit. The plaintiffs' lawyers said it wasn't "certain" if late filers will be allowed.

Ground Zero settlement fund

World Trade Center responders who agreed to the $650-million settlement are categorized by their level of illness.

Tier 1 (for people who either have no medical records or are not yet ill but fear they will be in the future): 2,383 of 2,726 eligible claimants opted in

Tier 2 (for people with varying degrees of illness or injury): 1,567 of 1,619 eligible claimants opted in

Tier 3 (for people with varying degrees of illness or injury): 785 of 807 eligible claimants opted in

Tier 4 (for people who died after exposure to Ground Zero contaminants or who suffer severe diseases affecting breathing or blood cancer): 5,308 of 5,411 eligible claimants opted in

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