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Sept. 11's millionaires: Is this what we gave for?

By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 2002

If I had a million dollars, once I got done paying the taxes, I'd redo the house, go to Paris, and sock away money for my daughter's education and my own retirement.

If I had a million dollars, once I got done paying the taxes, I'd redo the house, go to Paris, and sock away money for my daughter's education and my own retirement.

Now, I am not now nor will I ever be a millionaire. This is a fact to which I long ago grew accustomed, as have most people.

But America is creating a whole new group of millionaires. They are the survivors of victims of the horrific events at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

This happened as a result of the generosity of the rest of us. You and I gave $1.3-billion for the survivors and to charities coping with the attack's aftermath.

But here is what also happened.

Because the New York firefighters are so well organized, and certainly because we were moved by the deaths of so many of them, the families of the dead will each receive at least $880,000 from public donations alone.

That's awfully close to a million.

As for the survivors of the civilians who were killed, as many as 200 charities are raising money to help them.

Despite this, some civilians think they're getting second billing to the firefighters.

Delightful, isn't it, how money brings out the worst in people?

Yet the money was raised with the best of intentions. We thought of families missing mothers or fathers.

We couldn't get the pictures out of our heads, of planes crashing, men and women plummeting from windows, people running in panic as the towers came down.

The federal government has also stepped in. The survivors will get to divvy up a $6-billion fund that will probably give out an average of $1.6-million per claim, tax free.

That is serious money. And it poses a serious question.

Some people will find it even insulting to ask: Is the suffering of those who lost relatives, rescuer or civilian, at the World Trade Center greater than the suffering of a man, say, whose wife is shot and killed by a mugger?

She may not have died as the result of a terrorist act, but surely her husband hurts no less.

Florida, like most states, recognizes that.

That husband could get some compensation if he lived here, but only a little.

Last year, Florida's crime victims compensation program paid out about $26-million, and although that sounds like an enormous sum, the typical recipient received $3,700.

The husband in my example could get up to $50,000 for the loss of his wife.

But Rodney Doss, who directs the program, says a payment of this size is rare.

Why am I not surprised?

Money is an expression for the instrument of value. The attack on the World Trade Center was political murder on such a grand scale that it gets compensated in grand fashion.

But something is off kilter here. We gave that money out of our hearts to help gravely wounded people get on with their lives. We did not give it so they could build up trading portfolios on Wall Street.

I am uncomfortable with another thread of this story, faintly in the air but discernible none the less. It's about entitlement that knows no bounds.

Already a crop of lawyers who make their living from airline disasters are complaining that when the federal government set up that $6-billion treasure chest, the rules regulating the fund keep the families of the dead from suing the airlines.

More, more, more.

One lawyer even called the fund rules "shocking," "shabby," and "arbitrary," according to the New York Times.

My heart breaks.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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