Father's calling to serve his city became a mission to find lost son
LEE Ielpi gave 26 years to the New York Fire Department. He describes it as a calling, something that gets deep into your blood. He passed on the trait to his sons Brendan and Jonathan, who became firefighters.
It is not surprising then that despite having retired Ielpi headed to the World Trade Centre immediately after the attacks to help. He took Brendan with him, who was just four months into the job.
Jonathan Ielpi, then 29, from squad 288 in Queens, had phoned his dad to say he was en route to the site as well. Jonathan would not make it out of the south tower.
Retired fireman Lee Ielpi. Photo: Reuters
''My mission going there was simple. I was going to help,'' Lee Ielpi says. ''Then my mission turned into trying to find my son, Jonathan.'' That took three months to the day. On December 11, Lee Ielpi helped carry his son's body out of the rubble.
He also spent nine months at Ground Zero to help recover as many bodies as possible.
''I met a lot of dads that were looking for their sons, sons looking for fathers, for brothers, for uncles. I couldn't leave the other guys without trying to help. Every body that we found along the way was going to be a blessing for that family.''
Ielpi says his life took a different turn after 9/11. He became involved with the September 11 Families' Association, a group he would become president of, and co-founded the Tribute WTC Visitors Centre with Jennifer Adams, an investment banker who worked in the World Trade Centre.
Ielpi has become a fierce lobbyist for introducing 9/11 into the school curriculum. ''I have teachers who say to me 'it will traumatise the children to speak about it','' he says. ''We have school groups that come and they know nothing about 9/11 … Our children should know about the greatest attack on our country.
''If we don't learn from it then we have achieved nothing in 10 years and we have failed our children who are set to inherit our problems.''