A special fund set up by Congress to compensate people who got sick after being exposed to toxic World Trade Center dust following the 9/11 terror attacks is making its first round of payments, with the initial payouts going to a group of 15 first responders with respiratory problems.

The administrator who oversees the $2.8 billion 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, Sheila Birnbaum of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, announced yesterday that the fund was finally poised to process payouts after a deliberate start in which officials figured out how the program would work and lawyers pieced together documentation for at least 16,000 applications. The first round of payments, most of which have been offered to firefighters, range from $10,000 to a high of $1.5 million.

Birnbaum said the responders’ health problems range from “serious” to “not so serious,” and that those getting the larger awards tended to be younger, and to have suffered more severe economic losses. None of the people in the initial group had cancer, and all are living, Birnbaum said. “We think we are off to a good start, and with the help of the lawyers and the claimants, we will be able to come up with a lot more awards in the coming months,” she said.