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The cries and the cost of unspeakable tragedy

What Is Life Worth?: The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11, By Kenneth R. Feinberg, PublicAffairs, 213 pp., $24

On Sept. 11, she was told her brother had survived the World Trade Center attacks, but just barely. He had suffered burns on over 90 percent of his body. She and other family members kept vigil beside his hospital bed until he died four days later.

Two days after his funeral came another devastating call. It was the medical examiner's office. There had been a mix-up. The bandaged man in the hospital bed hadn't been her brother after all.

She had her brother's body disinterred, and held another graveside service for him. She didn't tell her parents, worrying that they simply couldn't bear it. The ''headstone has no date on it, because [my] parents believe that he passed away on the 15th, when in fact he passed away on the 11th," she said.

The woman gave this testimony during a hearing before the9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, which is another way of saying she sat at a table with a tissue box and Styrofoam coffee cups and told Kenneth Feinberg her story.

Feinberg was the ''special master" of the fund, the man given the impossible task of putting a price tag on each of the lives lost in the 9/11 attacks. The sister's story is one of many haunting recollections included in Feinberg's insightful new book, ''What Is Life Worth?"

In his three years on the job, Feinberg relied on the legal skills he had developed as one of the nation's top mediators. But he acknowledges his initial approach was all wrong. He charged in with the same ''let's-get-this-done" attitude he'd brought to his earlier work. In the past he had interacted mostly with other lawyers. Now Feinberg was dealing directly with families, when their wounds were still fresh and their anger toward the US government was most intense.

In early forums, some accused him of being a coverup artist for the Bush administration sent to give them hush money. Feinberg writes about one meeting in which he was urging Staten Island families to join the fund rather than choose the long and probably fruitless approach of suing the government and airlines. ''This is the only real game in town," he said.

''With a sinking feeling," he writes, ''I realized what I'd said. The room practically erupted in anger. One outraged wife spoke for the group. 'To you, this may be a game,' she spat. 'But not to us.' "

Instead of recoiling from the anger, Feinberg -- who served without pay -- ventured out to more forums. Along the way, he learned to listen rather than just lecture. By the second phase of the program, when he was meeting with individual families to review their circumstances, he was wowing them with his empathy. Word got out: Feinberg had changed. In fact, so had they.

Feinberg's book, which tracks the chronology of his tenure, is surprisingly gripping, considering that it is written by a lawyer.

And candid. As much as he praises John Ashcroft, Feinberg, a prominent Democrat, suspects shrewd politics were behind the former Republican attorney general's decision to appoint him to the 9/11 post. If the fund proved ''unwieldy and unjust," Feinberg writes, ''the blame would land on me."

He admits to a ''less selfless motive" in declining a salary: He didn't want families to accuse him of ''earning blood money on the backs of the dead and injured." And he concludes that, as much as the $7 billion program is now widely viewed as a success, he doesn't see it as a good model for the future. He thinks granting different payouts to the families of stockbrokers and dishwashers is ultimately too divisive.

Still, the real emotional power of the book comes when Feinberg writes about the hearings with individual families. The chilling phone calls from spouses stuck in the World Trade Center. The children ''playing dead" long after the attacks so they could ''be with Daddy."

The staggering scale of the 9/11 carnage sometimes dulls its impact. Feinberg's book is an effective reminder of the power of individual stories, told one at a time.

Neil Swidey is a staff writer for The Boston Globe Magazine.

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