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U.S. News
No neat endings for families of Flight 93 victims

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

After his partner, Christine Snyder, was killed in the hijacking of United Flight 93, Ian Pescaia applied for money from the federal Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund.

Related article:

Flight 93 victim's daughters remember dad as man who died bravely


But Christine's father, Neil Snyder, wanted to sue United Airlines and others for allowing hijackers to board the plane.

That created a problem. Under the rules governing the federal fund, Pescaia's acceptance of the federal money might have meant that Neil Snyder and other relatives couldn't file such a suit.

That's when Snyder took a closer look at his daughter's relationship with Pescaia, 32. He discovered that even though they'd had a wedding ceremony three months before Flight 93 crashed in Somerset County, they'd never obtained a wedding license. They weren't legally married.

Confronted with that information, Pescaia withdrew his request for the federal money.

The Snyder case may be one of the more unusual complications, but given the complexities of modern family life, it hasn't been uncommon to see disputes over estates, disagreements over lawsuits and just plain hurt feelings among some of the relatives of Flight 93.

"Your typical nuclear family isn't typical anymore," said Mary F. Schiavo, former inspector general of the federal Department of Transportation and now a lawyer with a California firm representing 10 Flight 93 families in lawsuits against United Airlines and airport security companies.

By next Sept. 11, the families, including those of the 40 passengers and crew members of Flight 93, will have to decide whether or not they're going to file lawsuits against United and American airlines and various security companies at the airports where the four flights that day originated. The families have until Dec. 21 to decide whether to accept the government's offer of compensation.

Typically, cases involving airline disasters take about 3 1/2 years to reach trial, lawyers say. Thus, families have to decide whether to accept the government's calculation of the value of their loved one's life -- so far, the average award has been about $1.5 million -- and move on, or spend the next several years waiting for their cases to wind through the judicial process.

What kind of closure?

In other words, closure is relative: Settle and begin a new life, or sue to find out where the fault lies.

To date, only one Flight 93 family -- Dorothy Garcia, whose husband, Andrew, 62, was a passenger -- has accepted government compensation.

Others, like Deena Burnett of Little Rock, Ark., have gone several steps in the other direction. Since the death of her 38-year-old husband, Thomas Burnett Jr., on Flight 93, she has become a plaintiff in three different lawsuits.

In February 2002, she joined the so-called Havlish class-action suit against terrorists and their supporters, which seeks $101 billion in punitive and compensatory damages. A few months later, she was lead plaintiff in a $1 trillion suit against the Saudi Arabian royal family and others.

Relatives can file those kinds of suits, against people believed to be responsible for the attacks, and still apply for federal victims' money.

But Burnett also has filed suit against United Airlines and Argenbrite Passenger Screeners, the company operating at Newark International Airport, for complicity in the death of her husband on 9/11.

And the federal rules say that relatives who want compensation from the Sept. 11 Fund cannot file those kinds of suits, because the law setting up the fund was designed in part to protect airlines from such actions.

Deena Burnett was able to make her decisions on her own.

But couples like David Miller and Cathy Stefani, whose daughter, Nicole Miller, died on Flight 93, had to overcome not only their divorce of 18 years ago, but ill will from the aftermath of 9/11.

Miller was his daughter's custodial parent after the divorce, but at the time of the 21-year-old's death, she had been living with her mother in San Jose, Calif., while attending college. News reports for up to a year after 9/11 and even some memorials and ceremonies neglected the role played by Miller and his wife, Catherine, in raising Nicole.

"I wanted to be recognized for some of that," said Miller, of Chico, Calif. "Sometimes it was hurtful because I was never mentioned. But we spoke of always taking the high road."

Agreeing to sue

And that's one of the reasons why the Millers, who initially wanted to accept government compensation for their daughter's death, have instead allowed Stefani to file a lawsuit through Schiavo's firm.

Jerry Bingham and Alice Hoglan have been divorced for more than two decades. Hoglan tells the story of how at their son Mark's graduation from the University of California in 1993, he reintroduced them.

"Mom," he said, "this is Dad. Dad, this is Mom."

Aside from that meeting, the two had little contact until their son's death on Flight 93.

"In death, Mark has helped heal his parents' relationship," Hoglan said. "Jerry was one of the first people I spoke to after ... that awful morning."

For Bingham, who said that for much of Mark's adolescent years he didn't even know that his former wife and son were living in California, 9/11 forced him to face many personal issues. Suddenly, Bingham and his second wife, Karen, were in the spotlight along with Hoglan.

"We hadn't seen each other for a long time," said Bingham, 60. "When you're put in a situation like we've been put in, it's difficult at best."

At his Wildwood, Fla., home, Bingham has built a red, white and blue memorial to his son that includes a pool table and bar. He wanted to accept government compensation for his son's death, but Hoglan was adamant about filing suit.

The two agreed that Hoglan would be the general administrator of their son's estate. But while Hoglan, a United Airlines flight attendant, has filed suit against her employer, Bingham has decided he still wants to accept the federal government's compensation offer.

Whether he will be able to do that isn't known.

Kenneth Feinberg, the special master making decisions about the Sept. 11 Fund, is expected to rule soon on whether a divorced parent of a 9/11 victim may file separately for compensation, and still allow the other parents to file a lawsuit against one of the airlines.

Bingham and Hoglan would be the first test case.

"I hope they rule in our favor," Bingham said. "That way, she can do what she wants and I can do what I want.

"There's not enough money in the world that they could give me to make up for everything. At the same time, there should be some [compensation].

"You'd like to just be able to get over this but it's always on your mind, whether you like it or not."

Steve Levin can be reached at slevin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1919.

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