U.S. District Judge Hellerstein gave his enthusiastic endorsement to a new settlement that could pay as much as $713 million to about 10,000 police, firefighters and construction workers.
He implored them to take the money, saying it was time to end an ugly and complicated case that has pitted New York City officials against thousands of men and women hailed as heroes for their service at the trade center.
"This is a very good deal. I am very excited about this deal," Hellerstein said during a court hearing in which he signed off on the pact.
Just three months ago, the judge sternly rejected an earlier plan that was worth about $125 million less, saying it did too little for ground zero workers who got sick after breathing toxic ash.
Plaintiffs in the case have complained of breathing and digestive problems, chronic cough, and hundreds of other common and rare ailments.
Among other things, the new proposal would boost payments for people diagnosed with cancer, an illness that hasn't yet been linked to the dust but is perhaps the most feared among the workers.
The settlement's success is still in doubt.
Under the terms of the agreement, 95 percent of the workers involved in the case must opt in for it take effect.
They must chose quickly. The agreement gives them only until Sept. 30 to make up their minds.
Some 9/11 responders had complained the original agreement contained far too little money, and said they would rather go to court, or hope Congress would intervene with a richer compensation bill, including one that could be considered this summer in the House.
That bill would contain as much as $8.2 billion in compensation for sick workers, plus $5.1 billion in free health care, but its prospects for passage are uncertain. As currently written, responders who participate in the settlement would be barred from getting compensation from the federal fund, although they would still qualify for free medical treatment.
John Feal, of the Long Island-based 9/11 victims' group, the FealGood Foundation, praised the improved compensation in the legal settlement but said it still does too little for the sickest responders.
"There isn't enough money to give to the people who are seriously sick," he said. "This should have been in the billions, not in the millions. But it is better than the first one."
Hellerstein warned potential holdouts that they were risking prolonging the case for years, and might wind up with nothing if they couldn't prove that their illnesses were linked to trade center dust.
"There is no better deal. This is the deal on the table," he said. "People can think, maybe Congress will do something. It's possible. But the old saw applies: The bird in the hand is better than two in the bush."
Lawyers on both sides of the case exhorted responders to vote yes.
Margaret Warner, a lawyer for the insurance fund defending the city, called the settlement "fair, transparent, clear," and "certain."
Nicholas Papain, whose firm represents about 640 firefighters, said "what is being offered in this settlement is their best option, and, for all intents and purposes, their only option."
In March, Hellerstein rejected the initial version of the settlement, partly because he said it was too stingy for the most seriously ill and too rich for their lawyers. That deal would have paid between $575 million to $657 million, depending on how many people opted in, with about a third of the total going to legal fees.
The new proposal would pay at least $625 million and as much as $712.5 million if nearly every worker joins the pact, and the lawyers would get less. Attorneys representing the responders agreed to cut their fees to 25 percent of the award. That change was worth about $50 million.
The special insurance fund set up by Congress to defend the city and compensate victims also agreed to kick in an addition $50 million to $55 million. Workers' compensation insurers also agreed to waive certain claims to recover some of the money they have already paid out to trade center responders - a move worth additional millions to the workers.
Individual payments under the settlement would range from a minimum of $3,250, for people who aren't sick but worry they could fall ill in the future, to as much as $1.5 million to people who have died.
Nonsmokers disabled by severe asthma might get between $800,000 and $1 million.
People disappointed with their award would be able to appeal to a neutral administrator, and the court appointed Kenneth Feinberg, the former special master of the federal 9/11 victim compensation fund, to serve in that role.
Speaking in the courtroom, Feinberg urged responders to join the settlement.
"What is the alternative? To wait? You're waiting for Godot.
You've waited enough," he said.
Three main Congressional backers of the federal health bill, U.S. Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Jerrold Handler and Peter King, praised the settlement as a good first step. But they noted that it covered only about one-fifth of the people who spent time at ground zero and would do little for people who aren't sick now but become so in the future. They said federal aid was still needed.
"We don't yet know the full extent of the health problems that will emerge as a result of the attacks, and people are still getting sick," Maloney said.
Workers who take the settlement would give up their rights to sue the city and its contractors. In the lawsuits, they have blamed the city and its debris removal contractors for sending them into the trade center's dusty ruins without masks or other protections that might have kept the particles out of their lungs and digestive system.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued a statement calling the deal "a fair settlement of a difficult and complex case that will allow first responders and workers to be fairly compensated for injuries suffered following their work at ground zero."
Associated Press Writer Tom Hays contributed to this report.