NEW YORK (AFP) – A proposed 657-million-dollar health settlement for some 10,000 people who worked at Ground Zero after the September 11 attacks was too low and must be renegotiated, a judge ruled Friday.


"In my judgment, this settlement is not enough," federal Judge Alvin Hellerstein said in New York after hearing two hours of testimony from plaintiffs in the huge case.

"There are some questions that have to be addressed," he added, calling for "additional negotiations to come up with a fair deal."

Last week, a preliminary deal was announced in which a government-funded insurance company would compensate more than 10,000 people claiming health problems from their work in the toxic debris of the World Trade Center, which was destroyed in the 2001 attacks.

The deal needs the court's approval to go ahead, as well as the backing of 95 percent of plaintiffs. They would have 90 days to review the proposal before making a decision.

Hellerstein singled out payment of lawyers' fees, which are expected to amount to some 200 million dollars or more -- about a third of the compensation package.

The judge said the insurance company, not the plaintiffs should foot the attorneys' bill. "The fees should be paid by the Captive Insurance" company, he said.

"Plaintiffs should know what they would get at the end of the day to make an intelligent decision."

At the hearing, a majority of plaintiffs testified in support of the proposal.

"I think it is a fair and accurate determination," said Michael Damato, a partially disabled laborer who said he earned 140,000 dollars a year before his stint at Ground Zero and now only earned 40,000 dollars.

Another witness, police officer Candice Baker, who said she suffered from breast cancer and had been operated on five times, asked Hellerstein to be "as sympathetic, as compassionate as possible. That is all I can ask."

The judge answered: "I promise."

A new hearing was scheduled for April 12.