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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

First to Fall, First Forgotten

Long before 9/11, jailer Louis Pepe was savaged by a terrorist, but he refused to yield. Severely disabled, he has had to fight for assistance.

July 11, 2006|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — He can't drive. He can't tie his shoes. He can't count past 11 or remember your name. He lives next to the Brighton Beach boardwalk and can smell the salty summer air, but he must strain to see the ocean. His left eye is gone; sight in the other is half what it was.

He gets by on a wheelchair and a walker. A stroke during his recovery left his right side all but useless, his hand permanently twisted. Because he can't read, at night he turns on the television, to a music channel.

Lately, he's also been listening to a new game show called "Deal or No Deal," trying to understand the world again.

Louis Pepe is a former corrections officer at the Manhattan federal jail. He is 48 years old and lives with his aging mother. His sister is his legal guardian.

Almost a year before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Pepe became the first victim of Al Qaeda terrorists in America while he was on duty at the jail. A top lieutenant to Osama bin Laden stabbed him in the eye, but his name has barely registered outside New York. Unlike the Sept. 11 victims and families, Pepe has struggled to recover in almost complete anonymity.

Another blow came when a judge ruled in September 2003 in the case against his attacker that legally Pepe was not a victim of terrorism at all. She said the knife attack was not an act of terrorism because it did not "transcend international boundaries."

The judge's decision has forced the Pepe family to press all the harder for financial assistance from the federal government. He has had to fight for ambulatory care and other needs. Just this month, for instance, the government balked at paying for a new prosthetic eye before finally relenting.

In November 2000, Pepe was beaten by two suspects in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa. They had planned to take hostages in return for a flight to freedom, but Pepe refused to hand over his jail keys. So one of them, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, plunged a homemade knife into his eye. Pepe could hear the ripping sound as it was shoved up his brain.

"You see this, Mr. G?" he said recently, pointing to the jagged hollow of his eye socket.

He not only can't remember names, he can't pronounce them either. He is unable to recognize one individual from another. To Pepe, your name is simply G.

"You see this, Mr. G?" he said. "This is what they did to me."

*

He arrived at the hospital with the knife's black handle still jutting from his eye, quivering. "Louis refused to be carried out," recalled his sister, Eileen Trotta. "He wanted to walk out to show the terrorists that we won, meaning the U.S.A., and that he did not give up."

For 2 1/2 years after the assault, Pepe remained hospitalized: He suffered a massive stroke after surgery to remove the weapon. Pneumonia followed; then a collapsed lung. He spent three weeks in a coma and was placed on life support. Multiple infections set in. His temperature peaked at 105. Follow-up brain surgery helped ease spinal fluid leaking from his eye socket.

Pepe is now slowly regaining his strength. He once weighed 300 pounds but has dropped half of it. Each morning before sunrise, he bursts awake and starts in on 500 sit-ups.

He may be deeply disfigured, but he still hopes to marry. He emphasized that by suddenly crossing the fingers on his good hand and kissing the air.

More important, he wants to be well enough to give speeches on how to combat terrorism. He believes the embassy bombers should never have been housed together in the jail or allowed to buy the commissary items they turned into weapons.

Several days a week he has physical therapy, but otherwise he spends his time alone with the mother he had planned to support in her old age. At bedtime he pauses, unable to look away from the image in his mirror of the twisted hand, the empty eye socket, the circular scar on his left temple.

So he works hard to rebuild his life. "I'm going to be med-free!" he blurted out, hoping one day to be rid of the prescription drugs that keep him functioning. The doctors doubt that.

But Louis Pepe believes the doctors don't know everything that's good for him. In winter when the boardwalk freezes over, he sips two cocktails in the evening -- rum and diet Coke, or Seagram's Seven and diet ginger ale. He has learned to pour them from a plastic bottle so as not to spill. Now that summer is here, he drinks two beers.

"Want one?" he asked, playfully winking his one eye.

Dr. Howard G. Thistle, a specialist in rehabilitative medicine, has determined that Pepe "remains totally disabled." Conrad Berenson, a New York economic consultant, calculated Pepe's job-related loss at more than $1 million.

Under federal workers' compensation he gets two-thirds of his pay, or $2,600 a month.

In contrast, billions of dollars were awarded to victims of the Sept. 11 attacks and their relatives in recognition of their sacrifice, based on lost future income and the needs of each family.

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