WASHINGTON – The midnight deadline for the families of Sept. 11 (search) victims to seek government compensation was marked by a flurry of last-minute applications from around the country and exhausted exultation in a downtown law office.
Just after the deadline expired 12:00 a.m. Tuesday, the fund's special master Kenneth Feinberg (search) leaned into a plain white easel while an assistant in a neighboring office called out the night's tally: 2,833 filings from the families of the dead, and 3,624 from those claiming injuries.
The official death toll was 2,976 in the 2001 terror attacks in New York City, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania, meaning 95 percent of the families of those killed have now filed with the government program.
To date, the average payment has been $1.8 million, with the highest award, $7.9 million, going to a badly injured survivor.
"This has been a historic response to a historic event," said Feinberg. "I think the nation wanted this program to work, not only to show the country but the terrorists as well that we are united."
Under fund rules, officials can still accept any applications that are received in the mail postmarked Dec. 22 or earlier.
Feinberg and his staff have until June 15 to pay compensation to all those who qualify. Created by Congress (search), the fund has already paid out some $1.5 billion in tax-free awards, and is expected to cost about $3 billion in total. That is far less than its original $6 billion estimated price tag.
Tuesday morning's numbers mean fewer than 150 families of those killed remain outside the fund, including 73 who filed lawsuits against the airlines and other U.S. entities. Those who accept compensation from the fund are barred from suing American companies and agencies for negligence.
Even with two years to apply, some still waited until the last minute to reserve their rights in the fund. Officials said 39 relatives of those killed walked into various fund offices in the final day.
Injury claims were filed by 371 people Monday, including two workers who were still filling out forms in the New York office at 11 p.m., officials said.
For some, the deadline alone does not end the difficult decision-making. Irene Golinski -- whose husband, retired Army Col. Ronald Golinski, was killed in the Pentagon -- recently filed with the fund. But, for now, Golinski has also preserved her right to sue.
"The one good thing about the fund is that everything would be all over: the paperwork, the questions, all of the outside interferences," said Golinski, 53, of Columbia, Md. "It is overwhelming."
Golinski is still angry the program was designed to protect the airline industry, security companies and other entities such as the operators of the World Trade Center in New York from possibly crippling litigation.
At least a few families say they will not pursue compensation of any kind. Rev. Paul Britton, whose sister Marion died aboard Flight 93, has decided to seek no money from either the airlines or the fund.
"The day could have come and gone and I would not have realized it was the deadline," said Britton, of the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Huntington Station, N.Y.
The final numbers are likely to fluctuate in coming weeks as hundreds with legal claims still alive, like Golinski, weigh their options.
Many families were harshly critical of the fund's structure when it was first launched in late 2001, charging Feinberg's rules were insensitive.
One of the harshest early critics was Charles Wolf, whose wife Katherine was killed in the World Trade Center. Angry over fund rules, Wolf launched a web site campaign to "Fix the Fund."
After concluding Feinberg had changed, Wolf became a staunch supporter of the program, partly out of concern his initial objections may have "poisoned" other families against the fund.
Wolf is now focused on other parts of his life, like a new relationship and a long-delayed business venture.
"This deadline is a relief for me," he said, "because I can now step back from Fix the Fund and work on fixing Charlie," he said.