Ten Years Later
Three attorneys reflect on how they helped victims of 9/11 through Trial Lawyers Care
Published in 2011 Upstate New York Super Lawyers magazine
on August 22, 2011
Updated on October 2, 2019
John E. Ballow is trying to describe the story of his client, Parasar Nandan, but after several moments, he sighs. “Those are the words that come to mind, but … that doesn’t even come close.”
Ballow’s inability to speak about what his client faced is an affliction shared by fellow New York lawyers John G. Rusk and Andrew G. Finkelstein, who were also part of the 1,000-plus attorneys from across the nation who banded together in the aftermath of 9/11 to create the largest pro bono effort in American history.
Finkelstein, who at the time was on the New York State Trial Lawyers Association’s board of directors, helped forge Trial Lawyers Care (TLC), the nonprofit corporation run through the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA, now the American Association for Justice) to help 9/11 victims and their families by representing them in their claims to the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund of 2001.
“We saw the opportunity to help [in] a very serious situation,” Finkelstein says. “There was no problem finding lawyers to volunteer. We were up and running within six weeks [of the attacks]; within three days, we were on the phone coordinating everything.”
While the three men took on different clients, each had the same motivation. Rusk says it best: “What else could I have done?”
Andrew G. Finkelstein / Finkelstein & Partners, Newburgh
The morning of the attacks, Finkelstein had a meeting scheduled for 9:30 at his firm’s Manhattan office. “My office was actually right across the street, 222 Broadway,” he says. “It overlooks the World Trade Center. I heard an announcement on the radio that there was a significant event, and it wasn’t really clear other than a plane went into the building.” Instead of going to the meeting, Finkelstein went to one of his other offices and watched the reports on television. “I spoke with the people in my Manhattan office who were on the 18th floor, literally watching the plane go into the second building. … It was just a devastating day,” he says.
Finkelstein went to work immediately, helping with the initial structuring of TLC. “We designated captains in each region, of which I was one,” he says. “And each captain would go to the attorneys who volunteered their services and call them and ask them if they could handle this particular matter.”
Finkelstein also took on cases for the organization, representing the families of two men who lost their lives. “One was a New Jersey gentleman, a 35-year-old married man with no children,” Finkelstein says. “He was an IT consultant, up on the 96th floor of World Trade Center 1. The plane struck 10 floors below where he was, and his body was never recovered.” Finkelstein recovered almost $3.7 million for the man’s widow and parents, and, like other TLC attorneys, received no fees for recovering the award.
Finkelstein’s other client was the family of a union laborer from Ireland. “He was married, also 35, and left a pregnant wife and two young boys behind,” Finkelstein says. “After this tragedy, his wife went back to Ireland with their two children and gave birth to the third boy.” Finkelstein obtained $2.2 million for the family. He receives cards from them every year.
“America is a great country that gives their people—and recognizes—so many individual rights that most other countries don’t allow their citizenry to have,” Finkelstein says. “I was always cognizant of the fact that if this happened in other countries, the government would not step up and provide compensation to family members as our government did. Being the vehicle for these gentlemen’s voices was very much a matter of great pride.”
John E. Ballow / The Ballow Law Firm, Buffalo
ATLA contacted Ballow in March of 2002, asking if he could handle a case out of Toronto. “I’m about 80 miles out of Toronto, but when they told me the story, it was like, ‘Whatever you need. I have to help this guy,’” Ballow says.
Parasar Nandan, a Canadian citizen of Guyanese descent, reported to work that morning as a subcontractor for U.S. Freight. After the plane hit, Nandan, who worked on the 78th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center, made his way to the emergency stairway, which was his only exit.
As Nandan began his descent in the stairwell, his skin, to a large degree, was burned off as jet fuel poured down the shaft, scalding him. “He had to testify at the hearing about how he came down the elevator shaft,” Ballow says. “One of the things he talked about was the extreme pain he felt after the sprinkler systems came on.”
The burns had stripped off his protective layer of skin. “The water pouring into that tissue, which was just bleeding. … He came down 78 floors like that. In the dark. People were hanging on to each other, like this parade of lost souls. You had no idea who was in front of or behind you. People were tripping, falling.” Ballow pauses. “It was like descending into the depths of hell.”
Nandan was one of the first people who stumbled out of the north tower. Dazed, he collapsed onto the sidewalk, shortly before the skyscraper fell down in chunks of molten steel. “He was picked up off the sidewalk and rushed to NYU Medical Center,” Ballow says. “He had severe burns over 40 percent of his body.”
There’s one moment from Ballow’s experience that he will never forget. “On the way to argue before the special master, we drove by ground zero for the first time,” Ballow says. “I didn’t go to New York often, but I remembered then flying to New York City for other cases to take depos, and I remembered being in the air, beside the two towers, so stately in the sky. And now I’m in a cab with this man and he’s saying, ‘There it is,’ but ‘it’ was nothing. There’s nothing there. That edifice just got knocked down, like that. And to believe that this man was in that tower, 78 floors above the earth, and he got out before it collapsed. That was a pretty emotional moment: him and I, sitting in a cab waiting at a red light, and he says, ‘There it is.’”
Ballow initially won $770,000 for Nandan. “We had a hearing, and then I made a post-hearing motion for an increase in the award,” Ballow says. Factors that Ballow asked the special master to consider were wage loss (Nandan is still disabled and unable to work), the need for hired help to aid with household chores, and future medical expenses. The motion was granted in its entirety and Ballow secured a final award of $1.2 million for Nandan.
Nandan and Ballow have kept in touch, and always call each other on their birthdays. “I am so proud to have represented this man, who never did an unkind thing in his life,” Ballow says. “I gained so much from this experience, personally and emotionally.” Nandan is currently living with relatives in Canada who can care for him. “Unfortunately, [because of the attack] Parasar is surviving rather than thriving,” Ballow says. “The people who did this, they never got to see the pain and suffering of the Parasar Nandans of the world. People from all walks; they’ll never be the same again. These were gut-wrenching sets of facts, but I’m proud to have been a part of it.”
John G. Rusk / Rusk, Wadlin, Heppner & Martuscello, Marlboro & Kingston
While Nandan’s injuries were impossible to ignore, others suffered wounds invisible to everyone around them. Such was the case of Kathleen Barbera, a securities compliance examiner who worked for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
“She wasn’t working in one of the two towers; she was in one of the surrounding buildings, Number 7, which ended up collapsing later that day,” Rusk says. “She was working at the time when the planes hit and began the evacuation process. In the course of evacuating from her building, she had the unfortunate experience of actually seeing bodies falling from the buildings and landing around her. She said it was almost like bombs going off. She could barely describe it. Her physical injuries were relatively minor. But she was severely traumatized emotionally.”
In Barbera’s case, Rusk had to recreate the morning of September 11th, as she experienced it, for the special master. “That made 9/11 very personal and real,” Rusk says, “because it was no longer what occurred on television. You got to see how even people who didn’t necessarily lose their life or suffer real horrendous injuries were impacted. It’s like [you could] almost touch and feel it firsthand through these people who were there when the attacks occurred, and you had to reconstruct very closely what that day was for them.
“You needed to show [Special Master Kenneth Feinberg] that your client was there working that day,” he continues. “You’re dealing with people who had to punch in or put paperwork in, and now the building they were doing these things in just isn’t there anymore. Obtaining and compiling documents and recovering receipts for train tickets, you had to reconstruct and find documents the best you could, get affidavits that, yes, this person did report to work that day. It brought that whole day back on a minute-by-minute recount.”
Rusk’s other client, Thomas Mulligan, was easier to account for. When the attacks occurred, FDNY put out a call asking every firefighter, regardless of his or her situation, to report for duty. Mulligan, a firefighter, answered the call. “As soon as I heard what was happening, I just grabbed my gear and went,” Mulligan says. “It was utter chaos. We’re used to a chain of command. But at that point, we had already lost so many chief officers that it was just chaos.”
“The fire department was very good about keeping track of who reported,” Rusk says. “That documentation was a little bit easier.” Mulligan, an ex-cop turned firefighter, was about to retire from the fire department because of a back injury, which required surgery. He reinjured it while working on the pile of rubble.
For two weeks, Mulligan was on-site all day and returned home in the late evenings. “We weren’t just firefighters at that time,” he says. “We were nurses. We were priests. We were whatever was needed.”
The reality of the situation hit Mulligan when he was doing reconnaissance around the site’s perimeter. “We were looking for bodies, but we came across books, pictures of people, things like that, almost a mile away,” he says. “And then I find this book that came out of the firehouse that was right next to the Trade Center. When you study for a promotion, you have these books. They’re very important, like bricks of gold. I had studied this same book that I found, just sitting in the road. One of the guys in the house must have been studying for a promotion. … It still had his name in it.”
Rusk says it was difficult to get Mulligan to seek help because Mulligan didn’t think he deserved it. “He felt there were so many other people who had been killed or had suffered injuries that were so much worse than his that he didn’t feel worthy,” Rusk says. “He said to me, ‘I was able to walk away. I wasn’t on my cell phone talking to my family saying this is the end.’”
However, on the eve of the deadline for all the paperwork to be in, after some encouragement from Rusk, Mulligan changed his mind. “We still joke about that, how hectic it was sitting in my office the day before, trying to get all this done,” Rusk says.
Says Mulligan, “[Rusk] still calls me every year on 9/11, to say, ‘Congratulations. You made it another year.’ This guy owes me nothing, but he treats me like we’ve been best friends since childhood. He always asks, ‘Are you OK?’ And the truth is, I’ve been nothing but OK since I met this guy.”