NEW YORK -- With thousands of breadwinners missing at the World Trade Center, the city and state took steps Monday to make it quicker and easier for their loved ones to collect death benefits without having to produce a body.
The move came after officials acknowledged that it could take months to remove and identify the dead and that some victims of the fiery disaster may never be found.
The measures should help relatives of the 6,453 missing deal with the mundane requirements of life: the mortgage, the groceries, the electric bill.
"We need to pay rent and for baby formula and lots of credit card bills," said Cindy Gomes, 33, of New York, who lost her banker husband in the attack. She arrived Monday at the center for victims' families after hearing about the streamlined claims process.
With her daughter, McKenzie, in a stroller beside her, Gomes said: "Our life was normal before, but now it's all on me. I work part time, but I can't work that much with a 6-month-old baby."
Over the past two weeks, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has tried to let families down gently, refusing to dash all hopes that anyone survived in the rubble, but acknowledging that the chances are small and getting smaller.
"The chances of finding anyone would involve a miracle," he said Monday. "Miracles have happened. It would be unfair for any broad hope."
The procedure for getting a death certificate - which in the absence of a body can require a waiting period of up to three years to guard against fraud - will be speeded up by the city, and victims' families will receive help from volunteer lawyers. Giuliani did not say how quickly death certificates will be issued.
Also, under a state initiative, victims' relatives will be able to claim insurance benefits and workers' compensation and get access to victims' bank accounts without needing a death certificate.
Gov. George Pataki announced that New York's life insurance companies will accept affidavits from trade center victims' next of kin, rather than death certificates. He also waived the requirement of a death certificate in workers' compensation claims, and signed an executive order allowing families to use an affidavit to withdraw as much as $15,000 from bank accounts and money market mutual fund accounts held in a victim's name.
"By helping with crucial estate and financial matters, we hope to provide a measure of comfort to the many families affected by this terrible tragedy," Pataki said.
Giuliani said teams of lawyers, working for free, will help families get a declaration of death from a judge and a death certificate from the medical examiner.
"It involves being able to show that the person was at work, that the person was there during that period of time" when the towers were attacked Sept. 11, the mayor said.
"So we'll make a list of all the different things that you have to bring with you. Then lawyers can sit down with you and draft the affidavit, and then it goes before a court and the court decides whether there's sufficient proof."
Andrew Martin, spokesman for the city's bar association, said hundreds of lawyers have called to volunteer.
Giuliani said the city will be able to streamline the affidavit process for large numbers of people starting Wednesday.
As of Monday, 6,453 people were listed as missing, while the number of confirmed dead was just 276 - 206 of them identified.
No survivors have been pulled from the rubble since the day after the attack. And Giuliani has said the 2,000-degree fire caused by the explosions of the two planes and the collapse of the 110-story twin towers make it likely some victims will never be found.
As for recovering any more survivors, Giuliani said on Sept. 16, "Right now, the possibility still remains. They're slim, but they still remain." On Thursday, he said, "We might be able to save some lives. But the reality is that in the last several days we haven't found anyone."
At the family center, Jermaine Cook, 24, of the Bronx said that although his missing wife had life insurance, he will not take part in the streamlined claim process because he still has hope that she is alive.
Helen Cook, 24, was on the 83rd floor of One World Trade Center when terrorists flew a jetliner into it, he said. The Cooks met at the Trade Center and have a 2-year-old son, Justin.
"I'll wait," he said. "There's still a chance. There's definitely still a chance she's alive."
Associated Press writers Tara Burghart and Michael Gormley contributed to this report.
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