9/11 settlement to benefit many

Families that lost loved ones in terror attack plan to start foundations

October 04, 2007|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- She held an unusually responsible job for a 27-year-old, analyzing intelligence for the Navy - work that included investigating the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. Still, Angela Houtz managed to find the time to take food to the homeless in Washington, to mentor a girl who lived near the Navy compound in Suitland, to organize a Thanksgiving drive for the local poor.

So when her family reached a settlement over the Rockville woman's death at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, it wasn't difficult to figure out what to do with the proceeds.

"There's a lot of charities that could benefit," Julia Shontere, Houtz's mother, said yesterday. "It's never been about how much money we can get. It's about how can we continue that spirit of Angie."

Four Maryland families that lost loved ones in the attack on the Pentagon announced a settlement with American Airlines and other businesses responsible for screening passengers at Dulles International Airport for American Flight 77. They were joined in the federal lawsuit by two women who were injured at the Pentagon and the family of a woman who was killed at the World Trade Center.

All waived the opportunity to participate in the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund in order to file the civil lawsuit against corporations that they said should have prevented the hijackers from boarding the planes. Attorney Keith S. Franz said the action was intended to uncover the security lapses that left the nation vulnerable.

"They wanted to learn how terrorists were able to evade security scrutiny and screening, carrying prohibited materials through checkpoints, get these materials onto airplanes and supplant pilots in the aircraft cockpits which led to the tragic deaths of 2,974 souls," said Franz, a partner in the Towson-based firm of Azrael, Gann and Franz.

"They wanted to know ... how five foreign nationals, males, who had been prescreened to require additional security scrutiny, some who could not speak any English, and one who had no identification on him whatsoever, some of whom paid cash for one-way tickets but carried no luggage for a cross-country flight, who repeatedly set off metal detector alarms, who tried to board the same flight, and some of them had knives and mace, how were they able to walk through security and join forces in their seats just behind the cockpit of that airplane."

Details of the settlement, which still must be approved by U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein, were confidential. Franz and family members declined to say whether they had settled for more money than they would have received from the victims' fund.

"I think it would be safe to say," Franz said, "that all of these families feel fully vindicated by the action they took, and that the risk that was involved and the time that was involved, the emotional outlay, which is huge, ultimately was rewarded by their patience and their tenacity."

Asked to comment, a spokesman for American Airlines e-mailed a statement:

"Sept. 11, 2001, was a national tragedy and we empathize with all families who lost loved ones that day. The federal government established what we believe to be a fair and equitable system, the Victim's Compensation Fund, for handling such cases without making the families suffer through a long legal process. This system worked because 98 percent of the cases have been settled privately or through the VCF. American is committed to continue working with the families toward settlement."

Family members of Houtz, Gerald Fisher of Montgomery County, Ronald Golinski of Columbia, Ernest Willcher of Montgomery County and Sigrid Wiswe of New York announced plans to establish foundations in the names of their loved ones. Some said the settlement helped to bring a sense of closure.

Of the 94 claims filed in federal court in relation to the attacks, all but 17 have been settled. The victim compensation fund, which was created by Congress in the days after the attacks, has distributed $7 billion to the survivors of 2,880 people killed in the attacks and to 2,680 who were injured.

Irene Golinski was philosophically opposed to taking the public money.

"I never felt that the taxpayers needed to pay for what happened to us on 9/11," she said. "I thought the fund was just not appropriate."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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