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11 years after trooper's death, Lockport widow seeking 9/11 compensation

Trooper Lawrence W. Lakeman was among as many as 4,000 members of the New York State Police who were sent to Lower Manhattan in the wake of the al-Qaida attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Six years later, Lakeman died of pancreatic cancer, on his 42nd birthday.

For the past three years, his widow, Audra Lakeman of Lockport, has been fighting to have her husband recognized as a 9/11 casualty, in the belief that his cancer was caused by some chemicals he inhaled or otherwise was exposed to at the smoky site of the collapsed Twin Towers, where about 3,000 people died.

Lakeman, a Wheatfield native who was stationed at the Lockport State Police barracks, spent several weeks at Ground Zero over a three-month period.

In May, the federal government, after a three-year delay, ruled that Lakeman's cancer was caused by his service there.

That could open the door for substantial benefits for his widow and perhaps college scholarships for his two teenage daughters.

The state Workers' Compensation Board, however, is resisting such a classification for state death benefits, although that ruling would not prevent the family from receiving a federal payout.

A spokeswoman for the State Police said six of its members died as a result of service at the World Trade Center after 9/11. It does not include Lakeman on that list.

"The NYSP is not the determining agency in these cases," the spokeswoman said. That is up to the Workers' Compensation Board.

A photo in the Lakeman family's album shows Larry at Ground Zero, wearing a simple gauze face mask.

Alex, Larry, Audra and Sydney Lakeman before his illness. (Family photo)

"You can see in his pictures there's smoke billowing still, even days later," Audra Lakeman said. "In one picture he has a mask that was maybe a little bit more than a doctor would have on, but not like gas masks or anything. It's pretty minimal."

A private foundation is less picky than the Workers' Compensation Board. Larry Lakeman's name is listed among the dead on a private monument to 9/11 first responders on Long Island.

During the Obama administration, funding for the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund was passed in 2010 by a Democratic Congress after a Republican filibuster held up the bill in the Senate.

The funding expired in 2015 and Republicans, by then in control of both houses of Congress, missed a deadline to extend it until they yielded to public pressure to do so.

"I was just dumbfounded by the insensitivity," said John Feal, an injured 9/11 first responder whose FealGood Foundation created the Long Island memorial and who lobbied Congress for the law's continuation.

This time, it won't expire for 75 years.

"That family will eventually be compensated, but there's no amount of money in the world that will bring him back," Feal said. "I hope (Audra) knows her husband was a hero and always will be in our eyes."

Answering the call

Audra Lakeman said her husband got the call from State Police headquarters on Sept. 11, and he was off to Manhattan the same day.

Until December 2001, he was in and out of New York City – one week at Ground Zero, followed by two weeks home and then back to Ground Zero.

Lakeman received another major emergency assignment in August 2005, when the State Police was among the agencies nationwide that sent manpower to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Lakeman spent several days there.

Lakeman, a trooper for 17 years, first acknowledged symptoms of ill health in January 2006.

"He started going in to the doctors. His stomach didn't feel quite right," Audra Lakeman recalled. "He always had reflux stuff and he thought it was something related to that."

His doctor prescribed medication to deal with that problem, but in late January 2006, things changed after the family went to a Disney on Ice show at what was then HSBC Arena in Buffalo.

At dinner after the show with some friends, one of them asked Larry, "Why are your eyes yellow?"

"When we read the side effects of some of the meds he was on, we thought maybe that could be it," Audra said. "We called the doctor. They did some more internal tests and discovered there was some blockage in his pancreas."

That blockage was cancer.

Lakeman continued working until the fall of 2006. He died Aug. 24, 2007.

"It was very, very difficult and he did take a lot of sick days through those times to get treatments," Audra Lakeman said. "He probably worked longer than he should have, but he was very worried about financially our family being OK. That was his biggest worry."

But he doesn't seem to have worried about 9/11 survivor benefits. It seems that no inquiries were made, no forms were filled out.

That didn't change until more than seven years after his death.

Wading through bureaucracy

In February 2015, Audra Lakeman went to a meeting at State Police Troop A headquarters in Batavia, where the speaker was a former New York Police Department officer who worked with James Zadroga, the first NYPD officer whose death in 2006 was attributed to exposure to toxic chemicals at the attack site and after whom the federal 9/11 compensation law is named. 

That was when Audra Lakeman learned the details about the state and federal laws and decided to seek compensation for her husband's death. She said "unawareness" was the reason she didn't act sooner.

"I think there's some forms I'm discovering that probably my late husband should have had completed as far as being a participant in 9/11, but I think when you're healthy you really don't think about that," Audra Lakeman said. "When you're as sick as he was for as long as he was, it's just hard getting the motivation to get things done at the same time."

"The proof of presence was substantiated by the State Police. His illness was 9/11-related," said Matthew J. McCauley, a former New York City cop who worked at Ground Zero and then became an attorney who handles only 9/11 compensation cases. He represented Audra Lakeman before the federal agency that processes 9/11 claims.

"It's unfortunate that things have taken as long as they have," McCauley said.

Albany antics

Gov. George E. Pataki signed a state 9/11 first responder compensation law as far back as 2005.

But the law required survivors of 9/11 first responders to apply for state survivor benefits within two years of a responder's death.

Audra Lakeman didn't do that – she says she didn't know she was supposed to – and thus the state Workers' Compensation Board rejected her claim out of hand last year.

Audra Lakeman in her home with a memorial to her husband. (Thomas J. Prohaska/Buffalo News)

But that wasn't the end of the story. The widow was working with Alex Dell, an Albany-area attorney who specializes in fighting the state for 9/11 benefits.

Dell appealed the rejection to the full Workers' Compensation Board, where it is pending.

He declined comment for this article, but Audra Lakeman said Dell's argument is that the spirit of the 9/11 benefit law was clearly to compensate first responders. And there's a loophole in that two-year statute of limitations.

"It's within two years of you knowing that you should file. So there is that little glitch in the law, and also how the law is written for 9/11 first responders," Audra Lakeman said. "How it's written and the intent it was written in are not exactly the same."

The Workers' Compensation Board said current state law sets a deadline of Sept. 11, 2018, the 17th anniversary of the attacks, for first responders still alive to file a form that would give them access to state benefits for the rest of their lives if they ever fall ill from an illness attributed to 9/11 service.

The death toll continues

According to the State Police, besides the six officially acknowledged deaths, 17 troopers retired with 9/11-related illnesses confirmed by the Workers' Compensation Board, and five other cases are pending. Another 12 troopers with 9/11 illnesses are receiving medical care or using time off from work for treatment.

The impact is much greater in New York City itself.

In January, the New York Daily News reported 165 city firefighters and 133 police officers had died of 9/11-related illnesses.

Feal said the average waiting time for federal benefits is one to two years.

He said nearly 100,000 people are in World Trade Center health programs, and more than 8,000 have cancer certified as being connected to exposure to the toxic dust and smoke after the towers fell.

How much is at stake?

How much money could Audra Lakeman receive?

The calculation is a complex one, based on the victim's age, how long he might have continued to work if he had remained healthy, how much insurance and Social Security disability he and the family received, and many other factors.

But it could be a lot.

To cite one example, in 2014, the New York Post reported a $1.5 million federal payout to a New York City fire captain whose pancreatic cancer and lung disease was blamed on work at Ground Zero.

"It is substantial," Audra Lakeman said.

Also, last month's federal eligibility ruling opens the door to potential college scholarships from the state and various foundations for the Lakemans' two daughters, Alex, 19, who has completed her first year at SUNY Geneseo, and Sydney, 17, who is finishing her junior year at Lockport High School.

There's no word as to when the state might act on a death benefit for Larry Lakeman.

"I want him recognized for what it was. He died as a result of participating in his job," his widow said.

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