9/11 Victims Fund went out of its way to avoid additional trauma

By Robert J. Stoney

When first approached to represent the family of a woman killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, I was a little leery of stepping into the murky waters of the Victim Compensation Fund. I knew how the fund worked, and I had heard the rumblings in the media from families unhappy with their outcomes. In the end, there was nothing adversarial about the process. Instead, it was a respectful and efficient experience, both for my grieving clients and for me.

In fact, it was our experience that the fund's representatives went out of their way to ensure the victim's family received as much compensation with as little additional trauma as possible. The fund was created by Congress days after the terrorist attacks to compensate the families of those killed or injured for their pain and suffering.

However, the fund also reflects Congress' effort to stanch the flow of legal bloodletting for the airlines involved, and for the World Trade Center's owners. The families who apply for compensation automatically relinquish their rights to sue. According to recent news reports, awards have ranged from $250,000 to $6.9 million for death claims, and $500 to $7.8 million for injury claims. Congress did not limit the amount the fund could distribute. As of early December 2003, about $1.3 billion had been distributed, and the deadline for applications was Dec. 22.

On Sept. 11, 2001 Shakila Yasmin was a 26-year-old graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University. She had just married her college sweetheart, moved to New York City, and started her career as a financial analyst at Marsh McLennan. Shakila was born in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, the oldest of two children born to Sharif Chowdhury and Showkatara Sharif. Life in Bangladesh in the 1970s and 80s was difficult, and civil unrest the norm.

Her father, an agricultural officer for the government-run sugar mill corporation, struggled for 16 years to keep his family fed, clothed, and out of harm's way. By 1992, with war-torn Bangladesh's infrastructure in shambles, he seized an opportunity to emigrate to the United States for a safer, more secure life. The family came to the United States on Jan. 21, 1992 after waiting 11 years. They became U.S. citizens in 1998. Shakila was living the American Dream with her parents and younger brother Fahim as the family settled in Northern Virginia when she was a teenager.

Shakila met her future husband, Nural Miah, while attending school in Richmond. They were married in a traditional Bangladeshi ceremony on May 12, 2000. Life was good. Shakila was sensitive to the many sacrifices her traditional Muslim parents made for her, and the poverty they endured for her sake. After she was married, Shakila and her husband began to support her parents as best they could, sending them $300 per month.

It was this help, in fact, that prompted the New York Workman's Compensation Board to rule her parents as dependents. In addition to the money, Shakila returned home monthly, filling her parents' refrigerator with provisions to last several weeks. A gesture characteristic of Shakila, but one that might be considered extraordinary by American standards, was that after she was married, she and her husband presented her parents with a blank, signed check to keep "just in case."

Shakila moved to New York with her husband and began working for Marsh McLennan in July 2000. She was immensely proud that she worked at the World Trade Center. Ten days before her death, when her family was visiting, she took great pleasure in pointing to the uppermost floors of Tower 1 and proudly said, "Dad, can you believe I work there?"

That was the last time her family saw her. On Jan. 6, 2003, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner informed Mr. Chowdhury that they had identified Shakila's DNA in the wreckage of the World Trade Center. Most of the people she worked with had also been killed in the terrorist attack. Shakila lived America's promise. She and her new husband died in America's tragedy.

Under New York law, because Shakila and her husband died simultaneously, and left behind no children, Shakila is presumed to have survived her husband's death, and the beneficiaries of her estate are her surviving parents. At every turn, the fund interpreted Shakila's circumstances in a way to maximize benefits to her surviving parents. Because Shakila regularly supported her parents, the fund's officials viewed her parents as dependents.

The fund independently contacted Shakila's employer to explore future promotions she might have expected. Fund employees also were universally empathetic, sensitive and concerned over the welfare of Shakila's surviving family. Clearly, nothing can heal the chasm caused by Shakila's horrific death, but the fund's award will allow Shakila's family to financially survive without her assistance. Her father called every dollar they received a "tribute to Shakila's life." The family feels a great responsibility to see that the monies are used in ways that "would make her proud."

Robert J. Stoney and his law firm, Blankingship & Keith, P.C. of Fairfax, represented World Trade Center and Pentagon victims as part of a national trial attorneys’ effort to provide pro bono help to Sept. 11 victims and their families.