Lee Ielpi is a retired, highly decorated member of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY ). Lee’s father encouraged him to be a responsible citizen and when he was 18 he joined the volunteer fire department in his town. Lee realized that in fighting fires he was helping people – both saving lives and protecting their belongings – and he liked the work so much that he decided he wanted to become a firefighter with the FDNY, a professional, paid department.
He joined the department in 1970, and after 7 years was promoted to the specialized company Rescue 2, one of the busiest and most experienced companies in the city. He worked there for 19 years and developed strong bonds with the other men in his company. Lee had four children, two boys and two girls. His boys followed their father into the firefighting tradition.
On the morning of September 11th, Lee’s son Jonathan called to tell him that the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane and that his company was being called to respond. After the second plane hit the other tower Lee and his younger son, Brendan, headed into the city. When Lee arrived at the World Trade Center site the towers had collapsed, fires were raging, and the site was strewn with huge pieces of twisted steel and crushed fire trucks.
Lee worked for the 9 months of the recovery, crawling into voids at the World Trade Center site, searching for remains. He and a group of other senior firefighters who were searching for their sons became known as the “Band of Dads,” older men who lost their sons in the attacks and came to the site every day. They inspired others with their fortitude and determination.
Everyday recovery at the site was a world apart from the reality of life in the rest of the city. Lee realized that he wanted to tell people about the experience shared by all of the men and women who put aside their own well-being as they searched the site for remains. He spoke with journalists and civic leaders, sometimes guiding them around the site. With his calm demeanor, Lee became recognized as a spokesperson for 9/11 family members in public forums and was instrumental in developing the activities of the September 11th Families’ Association.
In 2004 he co-founded the Tribute WTC Visitor Center, a small museum next to the WTC site where visitors can come to learn more about 9/11 through the personal stories of those who experienced the events. The Tribute Center’s motto is “Person to Person History.”