I called Lee Ielpi today, just like I’ve done for the better part of a decade. I can’t really remember how I first met Lee… but his story is one you’ll never forget. 

Lee Ielpi is a quiet hero. He knows heartache and tragedy better than most. He’s witnessed the unimaginable with his own eyes. Through it all, however, he has helped maintain the real and relevant part of the 9/11 story while also remaining one of the most solid and squared away individuals I know.

If you happened to be in the area of southern Manhattan today, chances are you’d make it a point to visit the 9/11 Memorial. Some call it “Ground Zero”. The Memorial does an incredible, albeit sobering, job of telling what happened at 1 World Trade Center on that day. 

The Memorial is as much a museum as it is a Memorial. As you descend under the rebuilt streets of Manhattan you’re gradually surrounded by the sights, sounds and even smells of our generation’s day that will live in infamy. 

You begin to hear the voices of firefighters calling for more support equipment. You hear New York Police Department officers requesting backup and emergency equipment. Knowing the final result, you begin to ponder how strong their commitment was to their mission. You consider how heartbroken they must have been when their initial efforts to save lives and property would seem to have been in vain… for whatever period of time that realization may have been. 

As you delve further into the Memorial, you witness some of the scenes and voices of tragedy as people, innocent victims, in the Twin Towers begin to realize their fate.

In and amongst the voices are steel beams that appear to have been twisted like spaghetti as the building fell. There are fire trucks, crushed almost beyond recognition, which were left abandoned by teams of lifesavers who were never able to return to the place where the trucks were parked. 

If you’re like me, when you visit the 9/11 Memorial, it’s about that point in the “tour” that you begin to remind yourself that this was an event which occurred a long time ago. It becomes a little too overwhelming and you want to remind yourself you can walk away. You remember, almost like waking up from a bad dream, that the scenes you’re seeing and voices you’re hearing are from a bygone era, envisioned and enacted by very evil individuals. 

You remember that you’ll walk out the door of the Memorial in a few minutes, hopefully into a glorious Manhattan afternoon… and you may even begin to ponder where your evening meal might be. You remind yourself of your Freedom. 

For Lee Ielpi, and many others like him, the nightmare of 9/11 can’t be left behind by simply walking out the doors of the Memorial, however. 

Jonathan Ielpi was in the middle of a shift on the morning of 9/11/2001. He was a Firefighter in Squad 288 of the FDNY Special Operations Command located in Queens, NY. Major incidents and Hazardous Material events were their specialty. Jonathan and Squad 288 were the tip of the spear for the FDNY and people of NYC. 

From l. to r.: Brendan Ielpi, Lee Ielpi, Jonathan Ielpi and Jonathan’s two boys Andrew (in front) and Austin (held by Jonathan).

Chances are Jonathan heard the 757 come in low over southern Manhattan, as most everyone in New York City did that day. 

When the call came in to Squad 288 the report was that a twin engine aircraft had flown into the World Trade Center. Jonathan suited up. He and his team knew there was work to be done.

I’m sure the scene, on that crisp and clear September morning, looking up at the Twin Towers, must have been more than Jonathan could fathom. Regardless, Squad 288 launched into action without hesitation.

And then, at 9:59 the South tower fell. 

We can only speculate if any of the team members had any idea of the magnitude of the situation. There are survivors who can tell the story, but a total of 9 lives were lost on 9/11 from Squad 288 alone.

No one could have imagined the towers would actually fall. The unimaginable day just got inifinitely worse.

If you’ve seen any of the videos of the aftermath of the towers falling, you’ve experienced some part of the deafening silence that enveloped the area afterwards. You may have also noticed the continuous chirps that sounded from beyond the haze and remnants of paper that swirled in the air. Each of those chirps was a firefighter’s alarm that automatically goes off when the firefighter doesn’t move for a period of time. One of those chirps was the alarm that had been connected to Jonathan’s tank and equipment. 

Lee Ielpi, who was in the waning years of his firefighting service on September 11th, rolled onto the scene, in a support role, about 30 minutes after the second tower had fallen. 

It was no longer his job to drag hose and don the turnout gear. Those jobs were for the kids in the service. The kids like his son Jonathan.

As any Dad would do, and as the reality of the situation began to set in, Lee began to wonder about Jonathan’s location. Ofcourse it wasn’t a time to lose focus on the task at hand, but Lee began to worry. As a result of his years of experience, he quickly realized that things may quickly get untenable.

Only moments later he realized Jonathan was gone. 

When you meet Lee Ielpi today, he’s a face of peace and contentment. When I spoke to him today, he thanked me for the call. We asked each other about family and shared a tear for loved ones gone home. 

He reminded me that he was now a Florida resident and that I needed to come visit. And, as he always does, he invited me to come to The 9/11 Tribute Center sometime soon. 

The Tribute Center is across the street from the 9/11 Memorial. It’s a private effort and is supported by selfless giving. The Tribute Center is Lee’s tribute to his fallen son, and many other families who have stories similar to the Ielpi family’s. 

As we chatted, Lee mentioned, with a smile “in his voice” that the Center had recently expanded to over 3 times its original size. He said they had officially changed the name and now referred to it as a museum. 

You can find out more about Lee Ielpi’s vision which became a reality here.

As was Lee’s vision, many years ago, on any given day, in and amongst the throngs of people venturing into the 9/11 Memorial, you can find the Tribute Center open, eagerly welcoming visitors to come in and hear “the rest of the story” firsthand. 

The Tribute Center does not employ many people. Most of the people you find there are volunteers. They’re not just any volunteers, either. At Lee’s behest, if you want to volunteer there, you must have had some direct impact to you or your Family on 9/11. You’ll only find family members or First Responders there volunteering. They help to finish telling the story of what happened, to them, on September 11, 2001. 

The Mission of the Tribute Center is to honor and remember the lives lost on that day. No one can help us remember better than those who felt it, saw it and were impacted by it themselves. 

The Tribute Center is the true personal side of 9/11.

And with that… I’ll wrap up my story. It’s one of heartache but happiness. You hear both when you talk to Lee. It’s easy for the rest of us to say we’ll never forget. Lee doesn’t have a choice and yet he knows he’s blessed and won’t hesitate to tell you that. 

His therapy is honoring those who did NOT die in vain in the first battle of the War on Terror… and what a therapist he is for the rest of the world.

If you’re lucky you can catch Lee at the Tribute Center sometime soon. If you don’t find Lee, you can still find plenty of other volunteers willing to share their stories. You can also see Jonathan’s turnout gear, just the way it was found, months after 9/11, lovingly displayed as only a father can do.


Let us always remember. Let us never forget.