Person of the Week: Kenneth Feinberg

There is surely no single person who has been exposed to more grief in the aftermath of 9/11 than Kenneth Feinberg.

"I underestimated the emotion of this at the beginning. No question about that," said Feinberg. "I didn't fully appreciate how soon this program had been established after 9/11, so there was a certain degree of unanticipated anger directed at me that I should have been more attuned to."

A Washington lawyer, Feinberg was appointed to head the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, which was established by the government to provide compensation to victims' families for lost wages, pain and suffering, and other monetary damages.

Participation requires, however, that family members waive their right to sue the airlines involved in the attacks and other potentially responsible entities.

When the program launched, many Sept. 11 families criticized it as a tightfisted effort to protect airlines from negligence claims that put insulting dollar values on the lives of loved ones.

Feinberg initially rubbed many families the wrong way, but he quickly learned to be more sensitive.

"I think the families changed, I changed, the American people changed. I think everybody evolved," said Feinberg. "I mean, there had never been anything like this."

Adding Insult to Injury

Feinberg had to estimate how much each victim would have earned in a full lifetime. Once a family accepts his offer, there is no appeal.

"It's a brutal, sort of cold, thing to do. Anybody who looks at this program and expects that by cutting a U.S. Treasury check, you are going to make 9/11 families happy, is vastly misunderstanding what's going on with this program," said Feinberg.

He added: "There is not one family member I've met who wouldn't gladly give back the check, or, in many cases, their own lives to have that loved one back. 'Happy' never enters into this equation."

A Dramatic Success

The son of a tire salesman, Feinberg was born and raised in Massachusetts. He wanted to be an actor, but instead became a lawyer.

After 9/11, Attorney General John Ashcroft asked the liberal Democrat to head the fund. Feinberg chose to serve without pay, and he believes he has made a difference.

"As we speak, there are only 73 lawsuits where individual family members elected not to come into the fund and sue in court — 73. But there are 5,000 claims in the fund," he said.

Feinberg cites those numbers as proof that the program has been a dramatic success. He has also developed a new appreciation for his own good fortune.

"I think I do appreciate more of what it means to have the benefits that have been so tragically and unfairly denied so many Americans as a result of 9/11," he said.

With the deadline for fund applications looming, Feinberg and his staff are working furiously to bring the remaining families on board before it's too late. Applications must be submitted by midnight Monday, Dec. 22.

After almost two years, Feinberg said he's ready to bring to a close his experiences as the filter and arbitrator for so much pain.

While his job may be over soon, the the cold calculations and the sharp pain the families feel are not.

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