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May 7, 2006 | New York Post

Three machinists suffering a potentially killer disease caused by asbestos exposure have won $16.4 million in a lawsuit against the Long Island Rail Road for flagrant worker-safety violations.

The former workers charged that the LIRR exposed them to dangerous substances in hellish conditions without any warning or protection.

In 1999, a jury awarded James Harrington, Albito Vélez-Zapata and Lincoln Aguirre $800,000 and the LIRR appealed, claiming that excessive.

The LIRR won a new trial, which began last month and ended with the $16.4 million verdict, one of the biggest for railroad workers.

"This is a vindication for these workers, who will suffer a lifetime of misery in the years they have left," said their lawyer, who represents about 50 other ill workers in similar suits against the LIRR. A half-dozen have died.

The three men have asbestosis; the jury awarded the damages for their chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The men said they had breathed air laden with asbestos fibers and other dust since the 1970s in the LIRR's former repair shop in Morris Park, Queens, and its current Hillside Maintenance Complex in Jamaica.

"You'd come home at night, blow your nose and all this black junk would come out," said Harrington, 54, who was awarded $2.4 million.

Aguirre, 62, who was awarded $6 million, and Vélez-Zapata, 61, who was awarded $8 million, declined to comment.

Harrington said the brake-repair shop was filthy, with only a window for ventilation. Diesel trucks idled outside, sending fumes into the shop. Steam from vats of lye and other solvents used to clean train parts also filled the room.

The machinists used a steam gun to blow dirt off large parts and wire wheels to grind and buff gaskets which they didn't know contained asbestos.

"Everything would go up into the air," Harrington said, adding that workers were given no safety gear other than protective eyeglasses.

Harrington, who lives with his wife and 16-year-old son in upstate Westbrookville, says he is unable to exert himself because of his illness.

"There's a good likelihood this will turn into cancer, which scares the devil out of me," he said.

LIRR spokesman Brian Dolan declined to comment, noting that the case was "still in litigation."

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