Volume 17, Number 45 | April 1 — 7, 2005

Overlooking the site where the father recovered his son

Lee Ielpi
Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

By DIVYA WATAL

Lee Ielpi’s eyes fill with tears as he recalls finding the body of his son in the rubble of the Twin Towers after three months of relentless searching.

“We were very fortunate,” he says. “On Dec. 11 we found our son – his whole body. There were only 292 whole bodies out of 2,749 people who died [at the World Trade Center].”

The horror of Sept. 11 and what he saw in the months that followed still lingers in Ielpi’s mind, but he copes with it the only way he can – by helping others like himself.

A retired firefighter, Ielpi, 60, was at the W.T.C. site for nine months after the attacks. Initially, the search for his 29-year-old son, Jonathan, also a firefighter, drove him to work day and night. But as the months wore on, he stayed and helped others find their loved ones. Soon after, he became vice president of the September 11th Families Association, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help victims’ families. Recently, Ielpi was asked to join the board of the WTC Memorial Foundation, joining the likes of Michael Eisner, Robert DeNiro and Barbara Walters.

“It’s quite an honor,” he says of his nomination, “more so for my son and for all the people who were lost.” Apart from stars and politicians, the foundation’s 31-member board has six other family members of 9/11 victims. Its main task is to raise $500 million for the memorial and cultural center.

Unassuming about his work and newfound position involving celebrity hobnobbing, Ielpi focuses on keeping the lessons of 9/11 alive.

“People have already become complacent,” he says. “There’s an old adage – history is going to repeat itself.”

People like himself need to talk about their loss, he says, stressing that it’s not just therapeutic. It reminds people of what happened to New York City, the U.S. and the world. Ielpi travels all over the country to speak at various forums, and he even talks to groups of visitors at ground zero. Remembering and learning from 9/11 – that’s what will impact the future, he says.

“We can’t look at 9/11 as a downer,” says Ielpi, with earnest emphasis. “We have to think of tomorrow – we can’t think of yesterday.”

And it’s not just in the U.S. that Ielpi disseminates his message. He has just returned from Japan, where he attended the 10th anniversary of the sarin-gas subway attack. The Japanese invited him to speak about how the U.S. government treats victims’ families, and what Japanese activists and government agencies can do to change their aid structure. The September 11th Families Association, where Ielpi volunteers, receives money from private corporations as well as grants from government.

Ielpi sits in an office overlooking ground zero. He points to an area marked by orange cones, where the south tower once stood – that’s the spot from which he extricated his son’s body, more than three years ago. He is strong enough to withstand seeing it everyday.

“My family finds it more difficult [to cope],” he says, referring to his wife, two daughters and one son, who is also a firefighter. Perhaps, three decades at the F.D.N.Y. and a stint with the U.S. Army in Vietnam has made him stronger, but Ielpi disagrees.

“Nothing in this world could prepare you for nine months of searching … ,” his voice trails off.

But those who have known and worked with Ielpi for many years, and even those who developed a bond with him after 9/11, agree: There couldn’t be a better person representing victims’ families, particularly on the Foundation’s board.

“The board will realize they have a tiger by the tail,” says John Vigiano, a retired fire captain who lost his only two sons in the attacks. “If he [Ielpi] feels something has to be done, he’ll do it. It’s good to have uniformed people on the board.”

Vigiano, along with Ielpi and other fathers looking for their sons, were dubbed “Band of Dads.” They met everyday at the parking site and searched under rubble until nightfall.

“It was a different world for us – we leaned on each other,” Denis O’Berg recalls. He was also one of the band.

“He’s good for the job,” O’Berg says of Ielpi’s new position. “He’s every active and knowledgeable. He’ll put in 110 percent – give it his all.”

Although it has met once formally at an orientation, the board has not yet started any business. At a meeting in April, issues of fundraising and progress of the construction work will be discussed in more detail, Ielpi says. As he see it, the board will not be involved in the politics of the memorial – it’s only concern is raising money. As for contentious issues such as how the names will be listed, “nothing is etched in stone,” he says. The completion of the memorial is still at least five years away.

Overall, he sees his task as a new challenge, a learning experience and an opportunity to work with “the movers and shakers of the country.”

The memory of the horror may never fade, but in this process of overseeing the building of a memorial, the wounds of his loss may slowly heal.

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