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Tough call looms on 9/11 suits

More than 1,600 people who filed lawsuits claiming that their health was ruined by dust and smoke from the collapsed World Trade Center must decide by Jan. 2 whether to keep fighting in court, or drop the litigation and apply for benefits from a government compensation fund.

For some, the choice is fraught with risk.

Federal lawmakers set aside $2.76 billion last winter for people who developed illnesses after spending time in the ash-choked disaster zone.

But to be considered for a share of the aid, all potential applicants must dismiss any pending lawsuits by the deadline and give up their right to sue forever over 9/1 1 health problems. Anyone with a lawsuit still pending on Jan. 3 is barred from the program for life.

The government program is attractive because it spares the sick from having to prove that their illness is related to 9/1 1, and that someone other than the terrorists put them in harm's way. But applicants won't know for months, or even years, how much money they might eventually receive from the program. That means some people may give up their lawsuits and find out later that they only qualify for a modest payment.

Others face a deeper problem. People exposed to trade center dust have blamed it for hundreds of illnesses, but currently the fund only covers a limited number of ailments, including asthma, scarred lungs and other respiratory system problems. That list does not currently include any type of cancer, which scientists have yet to link to trade center toxins.

But the very possibility that cancer could, someday, be covered has led some plaintiffs to drop their lawsuits anyway.

"In a sense, I've weighed my options and rolled the dice believing that the country I helped is not going to let me down," said former New York City police detective John Walcott, who retired after being diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia in 2003.

He decided a few days before Christmas to drop his case, saying he had come to believe he would never get anything out of the legal system.

"The court system was set up for attorneys to make a lot of money," he said. He added that at age 47, he is tired of a court fight that had no end in sight. "I'm done with 9/1 1. I can't go forward with my life and family and live in peace with this hanging over me."

The special master overseeing the compensation fund, Sheila Birnbaum, acknowledged that the deadline would put some people in a tight spot, especially if they have an illness that isn't currently covered by the fund.

"That is one of the dilemmas," she said.

Birnbaum noted, though, that the law gives her no wiggle room. Anyone who has a lawsuit active on Jan. 3 will be disqualified from consideration, she said, even if their illness is later deemed to be covered.

"It's a hard decision that they have to make," she said.