'We were lucky'

Lee Ielpi knows the pain of Sept. 11 firsthand.

BY HEATHER MOYER | NEW YORK CITY | September 11, 2004

Lee Ielpi knows the pain of Sept. 11 firsthand - he lost his son that day.

Ielpi's son Jonathan was a firefighter who, like so many other emergency service workers, went up into the World Trade Center's south tower to help.

"I still have to stop each time before I talk about him," said Ielpi, sitting by a window over-looking Ground Zero. Down in the pit, workers prepared the site for the 9/11 families to visit on the three-year anniversary.

A retired firefighter himself, Ielpi worked with so many other firefighters and police officers to find any survivors or remains at Ground Zero. "My main mission was to find my son. There were a lot of dads - retired firefighters - that came looking for their sons too, and brothers looking for their brothers."

Workers found Jonathan three months to the day after September 11. Ielpi and his other son came to retrieve the body late on the evening of December 11, and carried him out themselves. "We were lucky. Only 292 whole bodies were found, and Jonathan was one of them. So many other families were not as fortunate as we were, some are still getting calls today as remains continue to be identified.

"You know, people today say 'Oh, it's been three years ago now, get over it.' But that's hard when families have little or no remains of their loved ones."

Ielpi is now the vice president of the 9/11 Families Association, an organization started by a 9/11 widow weeks after the attack with the initial intent of just helping distribute the immense amount of information coming from local, state, and government officials to other firefighter families.

As the months went by, the association changed and formed a coalition with other civilian groups to work for the dignified and proper removal of remains from Ground Zero. They also were committed to capturing the site as a permanent memorial.

As those tasks were accomplished, Ielpi said the organization's purpose shifted a bit. With the help of Lutheran Disaster Response of New York (LDRNY), they moved into new offices and came up with new ideas. "(LDRNY Director) John Scibilia is a godsend - he's been helping us since day one, we would not be here without him," Ielpi said. "And all the volunteers that helped us, we can't say enough about them. They're spectacular."

The move now is to open up a visitors learning center in a storefront right across the street from Ground Zero - a plan that was just approved by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation this past week. Ielpi said the idea for the center came one day as he and the 9/11 Families Association Director Jennifer Adams were looking down on Ground Zero from their 20th floor office window.

"We saw all those visitors down there and said even though there are some signs up around the site with information, no one's really telling these people anything, they don't really know what they're looking at. So we had the idea of opening this center and having it staffed by 9/11 families. We'd give real tours, answer questions - just give these people some substance, a way to remember 9/11."

The plans expand more from there, with Ielpi saying he hopes that school groups and others come in to learn about terrorism and the consequences of hate. "This act made tens of thousands of victims. Just look at all the windows around the site. Anyone who saw it happen and watched is a victim.

"People from every country in the world come to visit this site - what an opportunity this is. We can't let it slip through our fingers."

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