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Seattle University


Out of the Ashes

Written by Katherine Hedland Hansen, School of Law
January 10, 2011

When Law Professor Marilyn Berger heard Kenneth Feinberg speak about the grueling and emotional process of administering the $7 billion 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, she knew the story should be documented.  

Marilyn Berger's work on the documentary was seven years in the making. 

After a year, she persuaded Feinberg to participate. After six more years of work, she has released “Out of the Ashes,” a compelling documentary that explores the legal, moral and ethical ramifications of the Fund and its impact on the civil justice system.  (Film screening: SU faculty and staff members are invited to a public screening and discussion of  “Out of the Ashes” from 4:30-7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 24, in room C6 of Sullivan Hall.)

“Out of the Ashes” tells the stories of seven 9/11 families and how they struggled to make sense of the tragedy – and how they chose to deal with the Fund that was designed to help them put their lives back together. They include a retired firefighter whose son was one of 343 firefighters killed; the widow of the co-pilot of Flight 93; a woman whose husband was killed, and whose journey was further complicated because her husband was an undocumented worker; a widow of an insurance agent who rejected the Fund and felt compelled to file a lawsuit in order to demand answers and accountability; a same-sex partner of a woman who died in the Twin Towers who battled for recognition as a same-sex partner survivor; and the family of a woman who died from respiratory disease caused by the toxic dust created by the collapse of the towers.  

Feinberg, the Special Master of the Fund (who is now overseeing the $20 billion fund to pay claims related to the BP Gulf oil spill) speaks candidly about the difficulty in persuading victims to give up their right to sue, the problems created by ambiguity in the law that established the Fund, and how the heart wrenching stories affected him as he struggled to essentially put a price tag on a life, over and over again.

The film raises important questions, including whether people affected by other tragedies like Hurricane Katrina, the Oklahoma City bombing, or other disasters also deserve compensation. It doesn’t reach any conclusions. It's up to the viewer to decide,” Berger said.  

The documentary has aired twice at the law school and once in New York City. An expanded version will be made available to law schools for curricular use. Along with debating the fund in a legal sense, younger students may gain a greater understanding of the devastating attacks. As time moves on, college and law students aren’t as personally connected to the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. She noted that some law students who will study the film next year were only 11 or 12 when the attacks occurred.  

An authority on pretrial advocacy, Berger established the Films for Justice in 1996. Producing the moving was more work than Berger ever expected– but also more worthwhile.

“This is the culmination of a momentous seven years,” Berger said.