He Carried His Son's Body From 9/11's Rubble. Now Lee Ielpi Carries the Weight of Educating Those Born After

Retired firefighter Lee Ielpi carried his firefighter son's body from the rubble of the World Trade Center.

Of all the things Lee Ielpi is thankful for, and there are many, uppermost is that he was able to carry out his dead son from the twisted wreckage of the World Trade Center.

On this, the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks, which claimed nearly 3,000 lives, Ielpi knows one real and abiding truth: It has been two decades since he saw his son.

"Now, this is me as an individual, and it's a very simple answer. It means I haven't seen my son in 20 years. I'm not about to let him be forgotten. He's going to be remembered by the fire department, by many people, by me talking about it," the 77-year-old retired firefighter told Inside Edition Digital.

"And I find that very rewarding that I'm able to still talk about like my buddies, my friends, my son, the people that gave their lives on 9/11, the people that came to work to earn a living on 9/11. But being able to talk about my son 20 years later, Jonathan is probably beside himself. Yeah."

Lee Ielpi spent 26 years with the FDNY. His two sons, Jonathan and Brendan, followed in his footsteps. Jonathan was 29 when he was killed at the World Trade Center. He was married with two young sons. His father and his brother spent months searching the stinking, smoldering, surreal rubble of what had once been the tallest buildings in the world. 

Ielpi then devoted his life to helping found the Tribute WTC Visitor Center, a small museum near the site where millions have visited. He became a public speaker, traveling the country to inform students, Congress members and community leaders about the human toll of 9/11.

The museum is not just a place to look at pieces of history — it has been a cornerstone of the healing process for thousands of families left with gaping holes where their loved ones used to live. Inside its walls is a special room filled with the belongings of the dead, a private place where the relatives of those lost could sit and remember and grieve.

Jonathan's fire department turnout coat and helmet are on display there. It is the gear he was wearing when his body was finally found in December 2001.

Every year since 9/11, Lee Ielpi remembers how the day started. He remembers the last conversation he had with his son. And in the years that have passed, he has grown increasingly wary of the fact that some of those born after that date don't know a single thing about the day the world changed.

"It always baffles me. I could be walking down a hall, and kids know now that I'm coming to speak, and I ask a child, a young person going out into the real world, 'Say, what do you know about 9/11?' And the answer I have received, many, many times is, 'What is 9/11?' Now that's baffling, isn't it?"

September 11, 2001

It was a stunning New York City morning. Gone was the staggering humidity of summer, replaced by clear skies with cotton-candy clouds and just the hint of chill in the air. 

"It was just an absolute, stunning, beginning-of-fall day. I couldn't wait to get out to the garden, because I love gardening," Ielpi said. 

"But I got a phone call from my son, Jonathan, and my daughter said, 'Jonathan said turn the TV on.' We turned the TV on. I saw what everybody else saw. The north tower was smoking.

"And Jonathan said, 'A plane hit the north tower,' and I said, 'Are you going?'" 

Like cops and paramedics, firefighters are always going the wrong direction — toward the chaos, instead of away from it. 

Jonathan said he was on his way to downtown Manhattan. "I said, 'OK, buddy, just be careful.' And he said, 'OK, Dad.' And that was the last time we spoke. So at least I had a chance to give him my thoughts," Ielpi recalled, pausing for a moment to collect his emotions.

The father wasn't about to stay away, despite being retired. He began to make his way to the World Trade Center, determined to contribute in any way he could.

"My mission was to go into the city. I’m going to go into the city, I’m going to find a command post, and I’m going to volunteer my help behind the scenes," he said.

The closer he got, the more insane the environment became. There were no traffic lights, no visibility and no order.

"Cars were flying past us. I mean, you want to do 100? Do 100. You want to go through red lights, go through red lights. And who's doing this? All off-duty firemen, all off-duty cops, all volunteer fire department guys. We're all coming in to try and help in one way or another."

Ielpi saw people covered in blood, people covered in soot, people wandering in a daze trying to understand what had just happened and where they should go. 

He also saw bodies. And abandoned fire trucks, still idling. And wreckage. So much wreckage.

"There was a fireman laying on the ground with his turnout coat over his head. So I didn't need to lift the turnout coat. The guy was gone," Ielpi remembered. "But you know, we just looked at each other and realized that, 'Oh dear Lord, this is going to be a horrendous day for a lot of people.'"

Ielpi stumbled upon former colleagues, and fathers like himself looking for their firefighter sons. Together, they started searching.

"So I just made up my mind that I'm going to start searching right now, right here, this very minute. If I find somebody alive, it's going to be a blessing for that family. When I find my son, it is going to be a blessing for my family. 

"I never found anybody alive," Ielpi said.

"The second day, I met up with a few more dads that were asking the same question and we started talking, 'Well, why don't we try to work together? Well, that's great.' Within the week or so, there were about eight of us that would meet up every morning and start the day looking."

The group became known as the Band of Dads. 

"We had the blessing of the fire department. We had our gear, we had walkie-talkies. We just worked together. Same scenario, anybody we would find along the way would be a blessing for that family. Right? It continued like that every day, just searching."

Months went by, without finding a trace of Jonathan. 

On Dec. 11, three months to the day since Ielpi last spoke to his son, the phone rang late at night.

"It was 11:30, which was unusual," Ielpi said. "Answered the phone, it was Paul. Paul is the chief in charge of the recovery ... With a voice of absolute pleasure, absolute beautiful, nice tone, he said, 'Hey, Lee, we have John.' I said, "Great. We'll be right in.'"

Lee and Brendan Ielpi drove to what had become known as The Pile. 

There is a tradition among firefighters: They carry out their own. So Ielpi and his last remaining son walked down a hill, toward a basket draped in an American flag, where searchers stood in silence.

"It was Jonathan," his father said. Beneath the flag was a body bag. "I couldn't open the body bag because it wasn't Jonathan, like I knew Jonathan. But I felt him from his toes to his head."

Led by a chaplain, Lee, Brendan and others from Jonathan's firehouse hoisted the basket. "We started to walk up this horrible roadway. Everybody has to salute at this point, I just looked over at them and I smile that big smile," Ielpi said. "They smiled back, and I gave them a thumbs up because you had to say thank you. These men and women are on their hands and knees every day. In this case for three months. Doing what? Finding body parts."

September 11, 2021

Twenty years on, Ielpi doesn't travel as much as he once did. The COVID-19 epidemic saw to that. He now lives in Florida, where he volunteers and enjoys the good weather. 

He never forgets Jonathan, or the students he spoke to who professed no knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. 

"One of the things that I do speak about when I go, I don't hold back. I'm not going to sugar coat. I'm going to talk about the body parts," he said. "Here I am in a school asking you about 9/11 and you're telling me you don't know about 9/11.

"I'm here standing in front of you with my loss and nobody knows about 9/11. I just think that's very dangerous." 

He says parents are apprehensive about telling children about terrorism. "That's not the way you educate," he says. "You do it correctly. You do it with feeling and you always bring the children back with a positive note. I make them smile. I make them laugh. I make them cry, but I end it with a positive smile."

And on this anniversary, he is again thankful for the opportunity to talk about Jonathan and every other person who died on that cool, September morning.

"So it is a benefit in a way that we're 20 years (on), and we're still able to bring up that horrible day and bring up the wonderful people that went to work that day," he said.

"It wasn't just my son and my buddies. It was all the men and women that went to work that day. Never planning on what happened to them."

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