By Julie Shapiro
LOWER MANHATTAN — A legal expert with a history of working with 9/11 victims was appointed Wednesday to oversee a $2.8 billion fund that will compensate Ground Zero recovery workers who are still sick 10 years after the attacks.
Sheila Birnbaum, a lifelong New Yorker, will be "special master" of the newly created 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, responsible for weighing the health claims of thousands of first responders and downtown residents and office workers.
She will have to make difficult decisions about which types of cancer will receive compensation and about how much a life or a limb is worth.
Attorney General Eric Holder, who appointed Birnbaum, said in a statement that he picked her because she would be "sensitive and fair."
Birnbaum called the appointment a "tremendous honor."
"My first priority will be to sit down with the people who will be most affected by the program, and see how we can design a program that is fair, transparent and easy to navigate," Birnbaum said in a statement. "The fund needs to get up and running quickly. At the same time, I want to make sure we do it right."
John Feal, a leading 9/11 health advocate who lost part of his left foot while doing recovery work at Ground Zero, met with Birnbaum one-on-one Wednesday morning and came away impressed.
"She possesses the character and spirit of a New Yorker to handle the issues at hand," Feal told DNAinfo. "She was sincere, compassionate and very forward with me."
During their hour-and-a-half conversation, Feal said Birnbaum was open to his suggestions about how to get everyone the compensation they deserve, and he felt confident that they would be able to work together. Feal plans to hold a town hall meeting with Birnbaum in New York in the next couple of weeks.
"We don't need elected officials or lawyers anymore — we need a friend," Feal said he told Birnbaum. "She understands that title and accepts it with full responsibility."
Birnbaum grew up in the Bronx, and was the first person in her family to attend college. She is known for untangling complicated legal issues, and in 2009 mediated a $500 million settlement for the families of 92 9/11 victims.
Under the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which President Obama signed in January, Birnbaum has until July 8 to release information about how the Victim Compensation Fund will work. The fund will begin accepting claims Oct. 1.
U.S. Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Jerrold Nadler and Peter King released a joint statement praising Birnbaum's selection.
"But," they added, "now the hard work really begins."