KAI RYSSDAL: Survivors of the September 11th attacks and their families were given a choice. They could go it alone. And sue the airlines. Or the Saudi Arabian government. Or they could sign on to the Victims' Compensation Fund Congress was setting up. And surrender the right to sue. That fund eventually paid out almost seven billion dollars. The average award for a death was more than $2 million.
Critics called it blood money, a bailout for the airlines. And wondered why a stockbroker's family should get more than a janitor's. Years later the families that did sign up are still trying to answer those questions.
ELIZABETH ALDERMAN: My name is Elizabeth Alderman.
STEPHEN ALDERMAN: I am Stephen Alderman.
ELIZABETH ALDERMAN: We live in Westchester, New York. We lost our youngest child, our son, Peter, on September 11th.
CHRISTINE MUNSON-HAYES: My name is Christine Munson-Hayes. I live in Canton, Georgia. My mother, Theresa Munson, or Terry, was killed in Two World Trade Center. She worked for Aon Corporation on the 92nd floor.
ELIZABETH ALDERMAN: We were not in the country when Peter was killed. For my husband's birthday, as a gift, we spent two weeks in France. We felt that our kids were pretty safe. Our daughter worked in Washington, D.C., but not anywhere near the Pentagon. And Peter's offices were midtown New York.
CHRISTINE MUNSON-HAYES: I had just put my daughter on the bus. It was her first year of first grade. Went in to take a shower. And while I was in the shower, the phone rang and it was my cousin, Patty, to tell me that there was an accident at the Trade Center.
ELIZABETH ALDERMAN: We found out that Peter was there when our son who lived in Oklahoma called us and told us that Peter had been there.
STEPHEN ALDERMAN: At Windows on the World. He was attending a conference. He worked for Bloomberg L.P.
ELIZABETH ALDERMAN: Michael Bloomberg called us and told us not to give up all hope but that it did not look good.
CHRISTINE MUNSON-HAYES: So I immediately tried to call my mother and her line was busy. At the same time, I went through and turned on the television and turned on Good Morning, America. I tried several times to redial my mom back. And then, finally, I got her. And she was at her desk. While we were talking, I heard an explosion and the line went dead. And at that time, I looked up to the TV showing the plane going into Two World Trade. And at the time my daughter and husband were walking in the door, Two World Trade Center collapsed. And I immediately hit the floor. I collapsed with it.
ELIZABETH ALDERMAN: By the time we had to make a choice about whether to apply for the Victims' Compensation Fund, there was disagreement. I wanted accountability. And if I accepted that money, I might not ever get the accountability that was important to me.
STEPHEN ALDERMAN: And for me, it was really simple. It's let's take the money and let's go out and do some real good with it.
ELIZABETH ALDERMAN: We even thought could we get divorced, and Steve accept theCompensation Fund and I pursue accountability. And we went so far as to ask a friendwho was a lawyer, and he said forget about it.
CHRISTINE MUNSON-HAYES: I waited till the last moment to apply for it. I felt it was blood money. I didn't want to profit from my mother's murder. And one of her friends said to me, "This is your mom's way of taking care of you. She took care of you when she was alive. She took care of those children when she was alive. This is her way in death. So go ahead and apply for it."
CHRISTINE MUNSON-HAYES: I couldn't come up with a dollar amount on my own. I mean, how do you put a dollar amount on life?
ELIZABETH ALDERMAN: Peter was sunshine, and light, and laughter, and fun, extremely affectionate, was never embarrassed, you know, to put his arm around his mother or kiss her in public.
CHRISTINE MUNSON-HAYES: My mom. She was young when she died. She was, what I say, 54 years young.
ELIZABETH ALDERMAN: He was just 25, not even a month into being 25.
CHRISTINE MUNSON-HAYES: My daughter believes her birthday starts on August 1 and ends Labor Day weekend. Because her grandmother would take her shopping, buy all her clothes for her there. Financially, she helped with a lot of things.
ELIZABETH ALDERMAN: We had heard that everybody that was going in front of Kenneth Feinberg, the administrator of the Victim's Compensation Fund, they were bringing movies, and videos, and all kinds of production numbers, and books all about their lost loved one.
CHRISTINE MUNSON-HAYES: It was hard. And to have to write out the stories and to justify why you think you were entitled to it, that was the hardest thing that I've ever done.
CHRISTINE MUNSON-HAYES: The minimum settlement amount that the government of the United States would give was $250,000 for the minimum amount. And that's all the money that they felt that she was worth. And we went through the appeal process. Eventually, I did win. They did raise it a little bit. But they didn't raise it to the millions that most of these families were given.
STEPHEN ALDERMAN: We received from the government $1.5 million. With that sum, we capitalized the Peter C. Alderman Foundation. The foundation seeks to alleviate the suffering of victims of terrorism and mass violence around the world that have been traumatized emotionally.
CHRISTINE MUNSON-HAYES: When I got the check, I put money automatically away for both of the kids into trust funds. They should both go to the best schools in the world, if they want to go.
When it came time for me to go and buy something for myself, I did have a hard time with it. If I went clothing shopping, I would buy a shirt that I know me and my mother would like together and I would wear it. And when I went into the store and I'd go into the changing room and I'd put it on, I'd say, "Do you like it? Do you think we should buy it?" talking to my mother.
ELIZABETH ALDERMAN: Do I consider myself to be financially well off? Yes, in that I don't have to think about money. I don't have to think about a roof over my head. Do I feel lucky and well off in general? No. I lost my child. And that doesn't go away, that doesn't get better.
CHRISTINE MUNSON-HAYES: They can keep their money, just give me her back. Not even give me her back for a lifetime. Give me one more moment with her. Give me that chance to finish my conversation on that phone as I was starting to say, I said, "Be careful," and got out, "I,"and could not get "love you," out before the line went dead. Give me that moment. Take your money back and give me the chance to tell her that I loved her. Even though she knew it, let me have gotten those words out to her, as so many of those families did notget that chance to say goodbye.
ELIZABETH ALDERMAN: You don't move on from losing a child. There is no closure from losing a child. You learn to handle it a little bit better so that you're not always crying in public.
CHRISTINE MUNSON-HAYES: I describe it as a country dance. You take two or three steps forward and sooner or later you're gonna get knocked back one or two. And some day, I'm gonna get to the other side of the dance hall. I may be 75 when I get there, but I will get there.
RYSSDAL: : Sean Cole and Amy Scott produced our story.
Liz and Steve Alderman
Christine Munson Hayes