By DANIELLE ULMAN, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - Irene Golinski pleaded with her husband on Sept. 11, 2001, to leave his desk at the Pentagon and come home after she learned a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York.
Minutes later, their call was cut off when a plane crashed into the Pentagon.
For her, the decision to rebuff a government-funded payment for the death of her husband, Army Col. Ronald Golinski, was simple. Golinski was not interested in having the American public pay for her husband's death, and she wanted answers.
Golinski and three other Maryland families settled their lawsuit Tuesday with the airlines and security firms they held responsible for botching airport security on the day their relatives died. They announced the confidential settlement in a news conference at the National Press Club Wednesday.
"I never felt that the taxpayers needed to pay for what happened to us on 9/11. I didn't feel it was appropriate," Golinski said.
They ultimately did find out more about why airline security failed so spectacularly that day, but the public may not ever learn the details.
The information has been sealed by U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein of the Southern District of New York, because there are 17 other similar cases pending. About 80 lawsuits have already been settled.
"We're hoping to approach the judge at the right time to get him to unwind the gag order," said lawyer Keith Franz, of Azrael Gann and Franz, who represented the families.
Franz said the case illuminated lapses in security not found in the 9/11 Commission report, which he called a government response to the terrorist attacks, rather than the corporate response the litigation covered.
"It was these brave families that took it upon themselves" to get answers, Franz said, when 98 percent of the families chose to accept government compensation.
Franz said he was unable to discuss airline and security firm missteps because of the pending litigation, but said there were "profound failures" at the check points—where many of the hijackers set off metal detectors and were sent through anyway—in security training and in the hierarchy of the corporations.
Those security breaches, "made it possible for the hijackers to predict the fallibility of the system," Franz said.
Taking payments from the federally funded Victim Compensation Fund would have stripped the families of the right to sue. The fund was set up by Congress days after the attacks and was intended to protect the airlines from an onslaught of lawsuits and financial liability, Franz said. Julia Shontere, who lost her daughter, Angela Houtz, in the Pentagon attack, said she sued to win accountability from the airlines.
"We know exactly who did it," Shontere said, "but wanted to know how it happened."
All of the victims represented in the case were working inside the Pentagon at the time of the attack.
Hellerstein must approve the settlement, although that may not come for months.
The federal fund awarded an average compensation of $2 million, with payments ranging from $250,000 to $7.1 million, depending on the age and income of the victim, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
More than $7 billion was allotted to victims who applied for compensation, said Charles Miller, public affairs specialist for the Department of Justice.
Christine Fisher of Potomac, whose husband Gerald "Geep" Fisher died in the terrorist attack, said she participated in the lawsuit because she thought she and her stepchildren would be penalized by the government because her husband had life insurance and was 57.
The lawsuit was filed in 2003 against American Airlines, operator of flight 77, which the terrorists maneuvered into the Pentagon after it took off from Dulles Airport. Other groups named in the suit were the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority, Argenbright Security and United Airlines, which were responsible for security screening at Dulles.
The families were able to sue because the airlines were responsible for security on the day of the terrorist attacks, said Charles Slepian, security analyst and founder of the Foreseeable Risk Center in New York City and Portland, Ore.
"The federal government has changed it so security is provided by Uncle Sam and not by United Airlines," said Slepian, a former TWA employee. "All of the regulations at the airlines have been changed."
But the government should have always had the responsibility, he said.
"These were not only airline passengers; these were thousands of civilians on the ground. In my opinion, it was always their responsibility," Slepian said, "they just passed it onto the airports and the airlines."