After 9/11 family tragedy, a new life for retired firefighter

Lee Ielpi. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Lee Ielpi. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Lee Ielpi spent months at Ground Zero helping recover the remains of 9/11 victims before they found his son.

Jonathan Ielpi, a 29-year-old firefighter with Squad 288 in Queens, was on duty when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. He called his father, who had retired from NYFD Rescue 2 in 1996, to let him know what was going on.

"He said, 'that's us, Dad, we're going to the Trade Center,'" Ielpi recalls. "I said 'OK, Jon; be careful.'"

That was the last time they spoke.

Ten years have passed since the day terrorists flew two planes into the WTC towers in New York, killing nearly 3,000 people, wounding countless others, sparking the war on terror, and whetting the country's appetite for retribution. Although he lost his son that day and witnessed the horror of 9/11 himself, Lee Ielpi is focused on hope, not hatred.

"It's so easy to hate," the father of four says. "But I don't understand what we're going to get from hating. I understand justice; I understand the need to get justice. But I don't understand what hating is about."

Continuing to help with the recovery efforts — after they found Jonathan's body in a stairwell in the South Tower, Ielpi spent six more months sifting through the rubble — he became involved with several of the organizations that eventually made up the Coalition of 9/11 Families. Now 67, he is the president of the September 11 Families Association and the co-founder, with Jennifer Adams, of the Tribute WTC Visitors Center, located near Ground Zero.

"On September 10, I was still retired," he says. "My wishes were to go fishing and hunting and hiking and camping and enjoy the outdoors and travel. My family, we were all brought up that way. I was brought up loving the outdoors; my children all love the outdoors. So that was my wish."

"But 9/11 changed many people, not just me," he says. "My life changed. I had to put most of that on the back burner."

"Someday maybe I'll get back to fishing and hiking," he adds. "We feel it's more important to continue this mission we're on."

[ Photos: More images of New York City firefighters ]

He spends six, sometimes even seven days a week on that mission, which is to educate people about what happened on 9/11, support the families of the victims, inspire tolerance, and make the world a better place. In addition to constantly evolving exhibits and guided tours, there's an extensive teaching program available at Tribute, with first-person accounts of the day. "We can't change what happened yesterday, but we can use it as a tool," he says. "Perhaps we can make tomorrow better because of what we learned."

The Tribute WTC Visitors Center marks its fifth anniversary this September, but Ielpi and Adams were offering guided tours of the area a year before Tribute officially opened. Since 2006, about 2.2 million people have walked through the center, led by more than 450 people with firsthand knowledge of the way 9/11 changed the world.

"Our guides, our docents, all come from what we call the 9/11 community," Ielpi says. "You could go on a tour with a family member who lost a loved one. Maybe a rescue worker — construction or fire or police. Or a survivor who made it out of the towers. Or volunteers like Jennifer [Adams], who came by the thousands to help us. … People who experienced it, who know what happened, who can tell the story."

When visitors arrive, Ielpi says, they often have a preconceived idea of what they'll see there. "What we want people to leave with is a positive," he says. "The idea that 'I can make tomorrow a little bit better.'"

"We want it to be, in a positive way, a life-changing experience."

Ielpi's office is perched 20 floors up, overlooking the footprint of the South Tower. In the Tribute WTC Visitor's Center below him, Gallery Four is the Family Room, filled with photos of those who died on 9/11. Gallery Five has a table with a stack of 4-by-6-inch cards on it; guests are encouraged to write down their thoughts and share them with the public. People from more than 130 countries have left messages on those cards.

"We've learned a lot from our visitor cards," Ielpi says. "They say the world speaks here, and it really does speak here. They speak with the same voice over and over and over: We must find a way to live together. We must live in tolerance. We must stop terrorism. We must stop hatred."

His family is helping with his mission. His younger son, Brendan, is also a firefighter; on 9/11, he had been in the service only  four months, and he and his father drove together into the city that day to help out. In December 2011, he helped carry his brother's body out of the wreckage.

"Jonathan's dream was to [work for] the company I worked in, Rescue 2," Lee Ielpi says. "Unfortunately, he was murdered and never made it there." He pauses, and then pride fills his voice. "Brendan, on July 5 [2011], fulfilled his brother's wish and joined Rescue 2."

That's about as close Ielpi gets to focusing on the past. He's all about the future, about fostering hope and change. He's turned some of the most powerful notes from the visitors' center's guests into a book, due out in August 2011, called "9/11: The World Speaks."

"Our book is about tomorrow," he explains. "With bin Laden dead, a lot of people are feeling we've just about won this battle, but they're so wrong -- that's just dangerous. We need to take one positive step at a time and move forward."

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