NEW YORK — Gently closing the door on hopes of finding any survivors, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani on Monday announced that the city would begin assisting the families of World Trade Center victims with the necessary court paperwork to have their loved ones declared dead.
In making the announcement, Giuliani acknowledged for the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that chances are virtually nil that any of the 6,453 people listed as missing are still alive in the rubble.
"I believe it is certainly time to say the chances of finding anyone would now involve a miracle," Giuliani said at his daily media briefing. "Miracles have happened, but it would be unfair to offer any broad hope to people."
Meanwhile, New York Gov. George Pataki on Monday signed an executive order streamlining court procedures for victims' families to get death certificates, as well as payouts from life insurance policies and government benefits.
The moves in New York and Albany mark a major psychological turn in the rescue efforts at the World Trade Center site, where recovery has been painstakingly slow. So far, 276 people have been confirmed dead, 206 of whom have been identified.
Throughout the ordeal, Giuliani has been careful not to undercut the hopes of the thousands who have dotted the city with posters pleading for information about their missing loved ones. But over the last several days, the mayor's statements began pointing to an inevitable conclusion.
"It's absolutely time," said Geraldine O'Doherty, whose daughter Amy worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, a bond trading firm in the World Trade Center's north tower.
O'Doherty said she and other family members admitted privately last week that Amy was gone. They held a memorial service for her Thursday.
The fact that Giuliani continued to hold out hope publicly, however, was a "clever pace" that helped families and even rescue workers absorb the loss, she said.
"To say this too soon would have dampened the spirits of the people who are trying to find more bodies at the site and would have dashed some hopes," O'Doherty said. "But to wait and do it slowly was a kinder process."
Death certificates are necessary for surviving relatives to collect on insurance policies, file workers' compensation claims, execute wills and tap into bank accounts.
Normally, the certificates are issued by the office of the city medical examiner, which then releases remains to a funeral home. But in cases in which a person is missing--in which there are no physical remains--the question of death usually becomes a probate matter handled by the courts.
New York state law says a person has to be deemed absent for three years before the court can issue a death certificate. But that time frame can be shortened if "clear and convincing" evidence exists that the person was exposed to a "specific peril."
In the case of the World Trade Center families, Giuliani said Monday, "it involves being able to show that the person was at work, that the person was there during that period of time." He said that starting Wednesday, the city will have teams of lawyers at the family center to help "large numbers of people" draft affidavits for the court.
The service, which was prompted by family inquiries about death certificates, will be free and voluntary, he added.
Pataki's order lifts court fees for the World Trade Center families. He also said his office is working with lawyer groups to put together experienced practitioners of New York's Surrogate's Court, which handles probate matters, to give the families free legal advice.
The governor also announced that all insurers licensed in New York will be required to waive their death certificate requirements and accept notarized affidavits from family members. So too will the Workers' Compensation Board, allowing for quick distribution of benefits.
In addition, the order allows surviving spouses and certain other family members to use affidavits to withdraw up to $15,000 from a victim's bank accounts or mutual funds.