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Work-Zone Injury Leads to Long Recovery for N.C. Man

Mon July 02, 2007 - Southeast Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) The crash that nearly cost Robert E. Lakeman his right foot did not command front-page headlines or intense law enforcement scrutiny.

It remains big news to Lakeman, who still walks with difficulty after being struck by a drunken driver the night of July 6, 2005, while working with a pipe-laying crew on Gordon Road.

Lakeman is one of more than approximately 1,500 people injured every year in work zones across the state.

In 2005, the most recent year for which figures are available, there were 30 work zone fatalities, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation.

“I’m still under a doctor’s care. I’ll never be 100 percent,” Lakeman said during a recent interview at the New Hanover County courthouse, where he volunteers with the Justice for Citizens court monitoring program.

Lakeman and others were installing a drainage pipe approximately .5 mi. from Market Street. The work area was lighted. Safety signs were posted. Then two cars collided on Gordon Road.

Lakeman said he and a supervisor ran over to help the man and woman involved in the crash. Traffic began to back up on Market Street and Gordon Road.

“I told my supervisor I was initiating traffic control,” he said. “As I was facing my supervisor, he yelled ’Robert, look out.’ I never saw it, but I felt it. The next thing I knew, I was laying on the ground looking up.”

Lakeman, who flew over the Ford F-250 pickup before landing on his back, said bones were protruding from his left leg, and his right foot below the ankle was almost severed.

“The driver of the truck was kind of idling through there. I told my co-workers to keep him here, don’t let him drive off,” he said.

Joe Mantegna pleaded guilty in January 2006 in New Hanover County District Court to driving while impaired and was given a one-year suspended jail sentence, with 30 days of active time, according to court records.

He also was placed on 36 months of supervised probation and ordered to pay any out-of-pocket medical expenses. Lakeman said he has not received any money.

Meanwhile, Lakeman spent nine weeks in the hospital and then began a challenging physical therapy program. He wears a thick-soled orthopedic shoe on one foot and has a titanium plate in one leg. After 10 years as a pipe layer, he will likely have to find another line of work.

“I’m in constant pain,” he said. “If I leave my foot in one spot too long, it’s like it’s on fire.”

Most of Lakeman’s medical bills have been paid by workers’ compensation, which also provides a monthly stipend. His wife works long hours to help pay the bills. But Lakeman is concerned about the future.

“You’re looking at a family’s emotions. You’re looking at finances,” he said. “What I am seeing now that I didn’t see before is you never know until it happens to you.”

State Trooper A.W. Cutler works along Interstate 40 in Pender County and has had some close calls of his own.

Cutler would like drivers to reduce their speeds and be more alert when approaching work areas and accident scenes on the busy highway.

Cutler was investigating a collision on I-40 last year that left one car in a ditch. He parked on the highway shoulder and was in the ditch gathering information when a car in the roadway slowed down to see what was going on. A sport utility vehicle behind it going approximately 70 mph slammed into the back of the car. Both drivers were cited for failure to reduce speed.

“It was a little too close for comfort,” Cutler said. “Definitely, it’s becoming more and more dangerous.”

Cutler is the investigating trooper in a crash on U.S. 17 involving a Pender County sheriff’s deputy. Mike Lewis was securing the scene of an earlier two-vehicle crash and awaiting the arrival of the Highway Patrol when a pickup truck crashed into the back of his patrol car.

Lewis was sitting in the front seat of the car. The truck pushed the trunk into the back seat, Cutler said. Lewis suffered only minor injuries and is recovering at home.

The driver, Francisco Alberto Gabriel Cruz was charged with DWI. He is free on bond awaiting a court appearance.

There were 4,478 work zone crashes in 2005 across the state, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation. Cutler’s advice to drivers approaching work zones and other potential trouble spots is simple.

“They should reduce their speed and move over if possible to another lane. If there’s not another lane, move over as far as you can,” he said.

Research done by the DOT found that speeding and distracted driving accounts for approximately 55 percent of all work zone crashes. The DOT also found that it takes just 49 seconds longer to travel through a 2-mi. work zone at 45 mph than at 65 mph.

As Lakeman recuperates, he finds some satisfaction in working with Justice for Citizens, which monitors DWI cases as they go through the court system. He hopes his experience will help educate others.

“Maybe this will open some eyes as to what happens to an individual once they’ve been hit and what you have to go through,” Lakeman said. “That’s what I’m doing here in court. It kind of gives me a little bit of closure.”

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