Editor's Note: This segment was rebroadcast on Sept. 9, 2022. That audio is available here.
Two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, attorney Kenneth Feinberg faced a truly impossible task.
After four plane hijackings killed nearly 3,000 people on 9/11, concern arose that thousands of surviving loved ones would sue and bankrupt the airlines. Feinberg was appointed by the George W. Bush administration to be the administrator of the taxpayer-funded congressional Victim Compensation Fund — to decide what a life was worth and to convince family members to accept his assessment.
Feinberg successfully settled the claims of thousands of Vietnam War veterans injured by the chemical agent orange. At first, he brought that same businesslike approach to the 9/11 fund but later learned this was a mistake.
Feinberg’s story and 2005 book “What Is Life Worth? are now the basis of the new Netflix film "Worth." Michael Keaton plays Feinberg and Amy Ryan stars as his office administrator Camille Biros.
Feinberg believes the compensation fund was the best route for families to take rather than enduring years of litigation. But as he and many others said at the time, the fund was also rushed and missing guidelines on who gets what.
The film includes a disastrous scene where Feinberg tries to explain to a room full of family members why they should go through the compensation fund. Biros, who serves as the film’s moral center, expresses that these families need to be treated differently than if the situation was “a mediated case in the courtroom,” Feinberg says.
“We were required to make determinations based on each individual's circumstances, a look back at prior earnings and projection on future earnings that was required by the statute,” Biros says. “And I believe at first that came across as a bit cold and calculating and less emotional than it should have been.”
Feinberg used the phrase “only game in town” in trying to explain that the compensation fund is a better path than litigation. But one man named Charles Wolf stood up and replied that his deceased wife isn’t a game.
“What we learned very quickly [was] maybe we're better off being rabbis and priests than lawyers,” Feinberg says.
As soon as the duo was appointed to the fund, Feinberg says Biros suggested giving individuals an opportunity to speak to them in private. In the film, Wolf, played by Stanley Tucci, reminds the audience of the need for treating the families with more empathy and dignity.
“There were also circumstances during these meetings when the family was able to provide information which ultimately changed the calculation,” Biros says, “because there was concrete information of a major promotion or significant change in one's profession that allowed us to take that into consideration when we made the final calculation.”
The rushed fund didn’t take into account situations such as fiances about to get married to someone who died on Sept. 11 or same-sex couples.
Same-sex marriage wasn’t lawful anywhere in the U.S. at the time of the attacks, which meant families needed to give permission for surviving partners to receive part of a victim’s compensation, Biros says.
The victims’ stories take a “debilitating” toll to this day, Feinberg says, but the unity of the country at the time helped the administrators get through this difficult work.
“The entire country spoke as one. There wasn't any red state, blue state, liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat,” he says. “This program 20 years ago is like time out of mind today. I don't know if we could ever do this today.”
Support from Sen. Ted Kennedy and the Democrats in Congress made it possible for the Bush administration to get the fund passed, Feinberg says. A top aide for Kennedy at the time of his appointment, Feinberg recalls Office of Management and Budget head Mitch Daniels saying the administration didn’t want to give the job to anyone closely associated with Bush for fear of disaster.
Workers without legal permission and foreign nationals whose loved ones died in the buildings were astonished that the American people were offering them money.
“Finding and convincing the 11 undocumented families to come into this program was no easy feat, Biros says. “They were petrified that they would be deported.”
Biros and Feinberg spoke with 60 pregnant widows. And in one “horrifying” instance, a man who escaped the towers with 95% of his body burnt and went through 35 operations came to their office with his medical team and oxygen, Biros says.
“Not the calculation, the dollars, the numbers. Judges and juries do that every day in every court in the country,” Feinberg says, “[but] the emotion, the pathos, the actual face-to-face visits, that really took its toll.”
The entire nation will be thinking about the victims’ stories on the 20th anniversary — but Feinberg says he thinks about them every day: people who went to the World Trade Center for the first time ever that morning and died, people whose lives were saved by being an hour late, and many more tragedies.
“The serendipitous nature of life and death can't help but make you rather fatalistic about getting up in the morning and living each day like it might be your last,” he says. “You can't help but think that way.”
This segment aired on September 7, 2021.