Firefighters make their way through rubble after terrorists crashed two...

Firefighters make their way through rubble after terrorists crashed two airliners into the World Trade Center. (Sept. 11, 2001) Credit: AP File

A taxpayer-funded insurance company for New York City will pay up to $657 million to settle with more than 10,000 rescue and cleanup workers who say they were sickened while working near Ground Zero after 9/11, officials said Thursday.

The agreement comes after years of wrangling over the claims of thousands of police, firefighters, construction workers and others who worked near the ruins of the World Trade Center in late 2001 and 2002. Thousands - including many Long Islanders - came down with mysterious illnesses they said were caused by working around the trade center's toxic dust.

The settlement was hashed out Thursday between attorneys for the plaintiffs, the city, about 140 contractors and the World Trade Center Captive Insurance Company, a $1.1-billion company established by Congress in 2003 to insure the city against claims.

The money will become available only if 95 percent of the plaintiffs agree to settle in the next 90 days. The deadline could be extended, said one official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The parties will present the settlement to U.S. District Court Judge Alvin Hellerstein Friday at 2 p.m.

Generally, the workers claim the city and its contractors did not warn them of the risks of working near Ground Zero and did too little protect them. Marc J. Bern, an attorney representing 9,000 plaintiffs, called the agreement "a good settlement."

"The police officers, firefighters, electricians, construction workers, volunteers and so many others all played critical roles in helping our city recover after the devastating attack on our country on 9/11 and we owe them a great debt," Bern said.

The settlement would pay about $575 million if 95 percent of the plaintiffs agreed and up to $657 million if 100 percent opt in. Once they agree, plaintiffs give up the right to sue the city further and must provide documentation of their medical problems to an outside administrator who will vet their claims.

The insurance company said workers may get payments ranging from a few thousand to more than $1 million. The payments will be based in part on a severity chart created by the federal court that graded the injuries claimed by workers.

"The resolution of the World Trade Center litigation will allow first responders and workers to be compensated for injuries suffered following their work at Ground Zero," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement.

The city admitted no liability in the agreement. Bloomberg has long said there was no proof of a direct link between workers' illnesses and their presence near Ground Zero. Thursday he said: "This settlement is a fair and reasonable resolution to a complex set of circumstances." The mayor said the city had "moved aggressively" to treat Ground Zero workers.

Christine LaSala, president of the WTC Captive Insurance Company, called the settlement "a pathway to a just solution for the over 10,000 people who have filed lawsuits." The insurance company was created by Congress after New York City couldn't find other insurers.

The settlement came after Hellerstein last month decided to move forward to trial with 12 cases. Those 12 plaintiffs now have 90 days to opt in.

Not all of the $1.1-billion insurance policy will be spent. The deal includes the creation of a special insurance policy to provide additional payments to workers who develop cancer in the future. Through last year, about $221 million had been spent to defend the city against claims.

Some defendants are not included in the deal, including the Port Authority. Plaintiffs may pursue those claims in court.

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