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In this Sept. 13, 2001 photo, firefighters and emergency personnel remove debris from the site where the World Trade Center towers fell. ((Stephen Chernin/Associated Press))

More than 10,000 workers exposed to toxic dust after the World Trade Center fell have joined a settlement worth at least $638 million, officials said Friday.

The deal will resolve an overwhelming majority of the lawsuits over the city's failure to provide protective equipment to the army of construction workers, police officers and firefighters who spent months clearing and sifting rubble after Sept. 11.

Among the thousands who sued, claiming that soot at the site got into their lungs and made them sick, more than 95 per cent eligible for the settlement agreed to take the offer. Only 520 said no or failed to respond.

Settlement 'fair': mayor

City officials and lawyers for the workers said they welcomed a resolution to a case that had pitted New York and a long list of demolition companies against the very men and women who helped lower Manhattan recover.

"This settlement is a fair and just resolution of these claims, protecting those who came to the aid of this city when we needed it most," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement.

Paul Napoli, a senior partner with the law firm representing most of the workers, called the settlement "the best result, given the uncertainty of protracted litigation."

The settlement, which has been on the table since the spring, won approval by the thinnest of margins. Under terms of the deal, it would only become effective if at least 95 per cent of eligible plaintiffs signed on. It just cleared that hurdle, with 95.1 per cent.

The settlement will provide at least $638 million to the workers, although related deals with other defendants, including the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the trade centre site, will likely boost that total to $740 million  or more.

A majority of the money will come from a special $1.02 billion fund set up by Congress and paid-for by the American people.

Workers could have qualified for an even larger total, topping $816 million, if enough workers had accepted the offer. The payment amount was based partly on how many agreed to join.

The deadline to opt in to the deal was Tuesday. The results were withheld from the media and public for three days while lawyers loaded documents into a computer system and verified the numbers.

Barring an act of Congress, the settlement will be the largest pool of compensation for people who fell ill in the years after their service at the trade centre.

Legislation being considered

The U.S. Senate is considering legislation, already passed in the House, that would authorize as much as $7.55 billion in medical care and payments to the sick.

The New York lawmakers who authored that bill, U.S. Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Jerrold Nadler and Peter King, said in a joint statement the legal settlement doesn't make the legislation any less necessary.

"Nearly everyone agrees that the settlement does not provide adequate funding to fully compensate those who are injured among the more than 10,500 plaintiffs in this case, nor does it cover the tens of thousands of 9/11 responders and survivors who are injured but have not filed lawsuits," the statement said.

Illnesses attributed to dust

Thousands of people believe they have illnesses caused by trade center dust. The lawsuits cited hundreds of different ailments, both serious and mundane, with the most common being a respiratory problem similar to asthma.

Under the deal, the plaintiffs will be spared the tough task of proving that their illnesses is connected to work at ground zero.

Scientists have documented elevated rates of asthma among ground zero workers and a decline in lung capacity among many firefighters, but are undecided about other diseases.