For many Americans, the modern age of terrorism began on Sept. 11, 2001.Not for Cathy Votaw.
For Votaw, a U.S. State Department lawyer and former federal prosecutor in Philadelphia, terrorism hit home two decades earlier, on April 18, 1983, when her father, Albert, 57, was among 63 people killed by a suicide car bomber at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon.
Today, shock still echoes in Votaw’s voice.
“Nobody could conceive of something that bad happening,” said Votaw, 61. “It was something beyond your imagination.”
Even Albert Votaw, a housing officer with the State Department’s Agency for International Development, had scoffed when his wife asked if his new posting to Beirut would be dangerous.
“How many housing officers do you know who have died in the line of fire?” he had joked, according to a federal court document.
After the Beirut embassy bombing, a pro-Iranian group called Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility. It was, historians say, the first attack by Islamic radicals against an American target.
Votaw said many relatives of the 63 killed and 120 injured in Beirut began to feel forgotten, especially after Congress began compensating survivors of the 9/11 terror attacks.
“You do feel that way,” Votaw said, “even though there’s no way to compare victimhood. Every family feels its own kind of pain.”
For Votaw and about 2,300 other Americans who lost relatives in Beirut and a series of subsequent terrorist attacks at U.S. Embassies in Africa, vindication of a sort began arriving last month: restitution checks from a fund created by Congress using $1.05 billion forfeited by a French bank that dealt with Iran and other countries sponsoring terrorist groups.
Votaw was in the checkout line at a Washington, D.C.-area supermarket with her 29-year-old daughter and her daughter’s fiancé when she got a call from lawyer Stuart H. Newberger, who represents about 500 people who were injured by or lost relatives to terrorism.
“I stood there and just started crying,” said Votaw.
“This has been a very long journey, and I’m proud and appreciative that we’ve finally reached this milestone while some families are here to witness it,” said Edith Bartley, 44, of Prince George’s County, Md., the de facto spokeswoman and lobbyist for those benefiting from the new fund.
Bartley’s father, Julian L. Bartley Sr., 54, and her brother, Julian Jr., 20, were killed in the Aug. 7, 1998, bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. Bartley, the consul general, and his son, an intern, were among more than 200 people killed that day in simultaneous bombings of the Nairobi embassy and the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The bombings were carried out by Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist organization.
“For the last 18 years of my life, I have had the great honor of walking the halls of Congress for this,” Bartley said. “We had to keep pushing to ensure that America does not forget.”
In the beginning, the families of diplomatic and security personnel killed at embassies targeted by terrorists were left with little more than a government death benefit, memories, and the thanks of a grateful nation.
U.S. law had no provision for the families to sue Iran or another foreign government linked to terrorism.
That changed in 1996, when Congress approved legislation amending the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, revoking jurisdictional protection for foreign governments ruled to be state sponsors of terrorism.
Survivors of the Beirut bombing and families of the victims began coalescing around possible litigation, represented by Newberger, a lawyer with the Washington firm of Crowell & Moring who specializes in international law.
“These really were the forgotten people,” Newberger said, adding that State Department employees were not considered to have dangerous jobs.
Six weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, Newberger sued the Islamic Republic of Iran in federal court in Washington on behalf of Anne Dammarell, who was critically injured in the Beirut blast. Like Albert Votaw, Dammarell worked for the Agency for International Development.
Among the 55 people joining Dammarell in the lawsuit were Votaw and her three sisters; their mother, Estera; and their father’s brother, Gregory Votaw.
Estera Votaw, who died in 2012 at age 83, was initially a reluctant plaintiff. Cathy Votaw said her mother, a Holocaust survivor, had refused German reparations for her parents’ deaths.
Votaw said her mother told the family, “I didn’t let the Germans pay me for killing my parents, and I’m not going to let Iran pay me for killing my husband.”
Votaw said her sisters and uncle convinced her mother it was important to stand together with other Beirut survivors in the suit against Iran.
In 2003, Votaw said, she and her family won a $30 million judgment against Iran for Albert Votaw’s death but had no way to collect because Iran had no U.S. assets to seize.
It was a bittersweet vindication, but Votaw said, “I didn’t expect any money at all.”
By the end of 2015, the Votaw family’s judgment was part of $43.5 billion that remained unpaid in $46 billion in terror-related judgments against Iran.
Then, in December 2015, Bartley’s 18 years of lobbying yielded results: a provision of federal spending legislation signed by President Barack Obama to create a fund to compensate victims of state-sponsored terrorism who already had obtained judgments from a federal court.
The bill received strong bipartisan support from congressional leadership, in part because it included all victims of state-sponsored terrorism not already compensated or pursuing their own litigation, including the original Iranian hostages from the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
“That was the beauty of the legislation. It puts everybody in the same position,” said Votaw. “Let’s scoop all of them up. Finally. It’s a good feeling being recognized as a group.”
Money for the fund — $1.05 billion — came from an $8.9 billion forfeiture agreement reached in June 2014 between the U.S. Justice Department and BNP Paribas SA of France, one of the world’s largest banks, which the United States accused of doing business with Iran and other state sponsors of terrorism.
In March 2016, the Justice Department named lawyer Kenneth Feinberg as special master to distribute the money. Feinberg also administered the fund for victims of the 9/11 attacks and claims from the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Feinberg said the money is being distributed under two rules: No individual will receive more than $20 million and no family more than $35 million.
Each claimant receives 13.5 percent of the amount of the judgment obtained through the federal court, Feinberg said. The fund will remain open for 10 years as other families obtain judgments against countries sponsoring terrorism.
Votaw declined to say how much she received from the fund. She said it would be divided among family members and reduced by Crowell & Moring’s legal fees.
If the money provides a measure of security, Votaw said, it still cannot bring back her father. Votaw said she regrets that he doesn’t know his legacy lives on. Votaw is now a lawyer with the State Department’s Office of Inspector General, working on measures to counter ISIS. Daughter Anna Eisenberg, 29, the oldest of her three children, works for her grandfather’s organization, the Agency for International Development.
“He missed so much,” Votaw said.