By ALEX GINSBERG
May 22, 2008
The grieving parents of a 9/11 firefighter are battling to stop the woman they expected to call their daughter- in-law from collecting the hero's pension benefits, and will try today to convince a Brooklyn judge to freeze the annual payout.
"Before this happened, we were very, very, very close, to the point where I called them mom and dad," said the fiancee, 36-year-old Doreen Noone, who only three years later married the firefighter's close friend and best man.
"I'm actually very puzzled by the position of his parents, that they're trying to deny me these benefits."
The parents said Noone exaggerated the relationship she had with their son, Kevin Prior, in order to collect $37,600 a year, her half of the annual benefit. The Priors already receive the other half.
If Gerard and Marian Prior win their case, they would see no increase in their benefits - the government would simply pocket the share Noone claims.
The Priors said they are deeply religious people and troubled by the FDNY pension board's determination that their unmarried son was involved in a serious relationship.
"They were so focused on the honor and the memory of their son and they didn't want the son's memory, his legacy, to be that he was in a domestic partner ship," said the parents' lawyer, Norman Siegel, former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
"They strongly and have consistently held that he and she were not domestic partners."
In 2004, Noone married Prior's best friend, Edward Wheeler, a Brooklyn police sergeant who was set to be the best man at the planned 2002 wedding and delivered the eulogy at Prior's funeral.
Under a 2003 change to the state law, domestic partners are eligible for a 50 percent share in the pension benefits of uniformed service members killed on 9/11. The law doesn't mention the word "fiance" but includes "intent to marry" as one factor the board should consider.
"If someone told them they weren't coming out, every single one of them would have wanted their fiances to have some level of protection," Noone said. "They weren't given that option."
Following the change, the FDNY's pension board approved the payments - $37,600 a year for life - for Noone, prompting Gerard and Marian to go to war. At the Priors' urging, the pension board twice reconsidered its original ruling that Noone should get her share. The decision was upheld both times.
The parents declined comment yesterday outside their Bellmore, LI, home.
Noone's wedding plans were ripped apart 10 months before the big day when Prior, who was assigned to Squad 252, died amid the rubble of the north tower.
Today, Justice Laura Jacobson will hear testimony from witnesses - including the Priors themselves, the dead firefighter's brother and a nun who was close to the family - in order to decide whether the couple truly shared a domestic partnership.
The court action comes despite the fact that the parents have collected more than $1.5 million in death benefits from various sources, including the Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund - and can't collect Noone's $37,600 award, even if the court reverses the pension board.
"This is what Kevin would want," Noone said. "It would be his gift to me.
"This is nothing, compared to what his parents have received, and I'm not asking for that," she said. "It is what I would have gotten if we were married. If this happened a couple of months later, we wouldn't even be here."
Additional reporting by John Doyle and Selim Algar