My experiences in NY during the Republican National Convention were wonderful. It is one thing to view our political process from the distance of TV, radio and the Internet. It is quite another to see it in person. I passionately enjoyed living, breathing and eating politics during five consecutive days and sleepless nights, chatting with politicians, interviewing cops, protesters and writers, attending parties and listening to speeches.
I stood in awe at a private function as Dick Cheney, standing twenty feet away, spoke of the coming election and the challenges America faces. At Madison Square Garden I experienced goose bumps in places I’d never before when our President walked out on stage and gave the speech of his political life. And the night before I’d lucked into partying beside his daughters in a loud, sweat-drenched Manhattan nightclub. While any single one of these events would have made the trip a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I had a single shining moment that will forever haunt me, one that in retrospect I'd have traded for all the others. With a small group of people from my state I stood next to a hero and heard his story.
Lee Ielpi gazes out of a window twenty stories above New York's World Trade Center. It offers an unobstructed view of the emptiness where the Twin Towers once stood. He speaks of his son Jonathan, often in the present tense as he relates the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Jonathan, along with 2791 others, was murdered that day by religious fanatics convinced that God would reward their cruelty. Ielpi relates, in great and often gruesome detail, the events of that day and of the following nine months spent picking through wreckage searching for his son while helping recover the remains of other victims. While Ielpi speaks, it is at times hard to separate past from present. His powerful, evocative narrative brings listeners close to the events and meaning of the darkest day in recent American history.
In his words I could almost hear the brief roar of the first jet, then the tremendous explosion as it crashed into the North Tower at 500 mph. He narrates and in my mind's eye I watch in horror as those trapped above the impact zone are driven towards the windows by the intense heat and flames. I watch as they begin jumping to their deaths, sometimes in twos and threes, holding hands in a last desperate attempt to hold onto something. This single vision of 9/11 disturbs me most. I think of young men and women, looking forward to an evening out on the town. I think of wives and husbands, tired at day's end looking forward to comfort and warmth and home and family. I see old men, years on the job, retirement's rewards within their grasp, more time to spend with the grandchildren…Then, the instant horror of being forced into choosing between immolation or a leap to one's death.
Ielpi speaks and I hear the second jet, a brief subsonic howl and then a shattering impact. Death reaching through office walls. Frantic cell phone calls for help. More people jumping to death as courageous men and women of the fire and police departments enter the Towers to rescue survivors. They know this is bad. They know they might die. They continue up the stairs, fear etched in their faces, 90lbs of equipment slowing their ascents, each step one closer to sealing their fates.
Ielpi knows his son is somewhere inside. He'd received a call from him-- "Dad, we're going to the World Trade Center." Ielpi said, "Jon, be careful." They never speak again.
The South Tower falls. The North one follows. Lee Ielpi arrives within thirty minutes of its collapse. He's desperate to find his son. "I got here within half an hour after the North Tower came down. You couldn't see a quarter of the way down the streets for blocks and blocks. We saw the dead in the streets. You see some of the walking wounded.”
As Ielpi continues, he points towards the thousands of windows in the surviving buildings that ring where the towers once stood. On that September morning, people peered from them, transfixed by the unfolding horror. "They saw things that people aren't supposed to see," says Ielpi. "Many of those who occupied those buildings left handbags, backpacks, personal items when they left. Most never came back for their belongings. How many divorces because of what they saw? How many started drinking? No one's done any studies yet. These people are 9/11 victims, too."
I stare at the windows. The broken ones have long since been replaced and the bright sun glints off them on this fine late summer day. The stillness unsettles me.
Jonathan Ielpi, 29 years old, father of two young children, died beside men from his father’s fire company. His dad spent nine months digging through the wreckage with garden tools, recovering body parts. Three months into the search, they found his son. On that day he got home from Ground Zero at . The phone rang. “Got a phone call from a deputy chief, a good friend of mine," he said, “We have your son.” Ielpi and his other son Brandon, also a firefighter, drove to the site. “My son Brandon and I were able to come here. And all work stops when we had whole bodies or something that would resemble a whole body, and people would line up on each side of this makeshift ramp. And I went down with my son, Brandon and we were able to collect Jonathan. He was already in the basket.” Ielpi is overcome with emotion. He pauses, then continues: “So we were able to go down, spend a little time and then Brandon and myself and some of the guys in Jon’s company, we carried him up, put him in an ambulance and took Jon away. We were blessed in a way, because my son was a whole body”.
As each Tower collapsed, an enormous amount of energy was released. The floors pancaked down and the exponentially increasing mass accelerated. Nearly everything within its envelope was pulverized to dust. Lee Ielpi says that not a single filing cabinet was found. Not a single desk, telephone, computer or chair survived the macerating action of tons of concrete, glass and steel as it churned its way into the ground. And the glass that made up the Tower’s facades was reduced to dust. According to Ielpi, not a single piece of it was found. The few bodies found relatively intact, including his son’s were those that were thrown clear of the main collapse. Jonathan Ielpi was found on a staircase from the South Tower with men from his father’s company. His father takes comfort in knowing that he died with brothers, doing what he loved.
The outlines of where the Towers once stood are now marked with traffic cones. I look down on them and am stunned by their size. Ielpi tells me that the footprint of each building occupied one full acre. They are marked so that families of the dead can stand within these boundaries and grieve.
He speaks of the great dust cloud that enveloped Manhattan when the Towers came down. He says it spread the souls of those who perished that day throughout the city. I recall that it hung over the city for days. Then the rains came and it disappeared, washed down the city streets, off the buildings and cars and eventually out to sea.
The people in the group I’m with are shocked, mesmerized. Several are holding back tears. The closeness of 9/11 pours over me in a wave of anger and profound sadness. Ielpi points to a small group of antiwar protesters far below who are pacing around the fenced perimeter of the site. He turns to us, sadness in his eyes as his voice drops: “Those people down there, they don’t know……they’ve never been through this……we have gotten complacent……we are forgetting what happened here……this could happen again."
I stand in line to say goodbye. When my turn comes I clumsily shake Lee’s hand and thank him. As I leave the room, I look towards a willowy young woman who works in the 9/11 outreach center with him. She’d been standing behind us as he spoke. Three years ago she’d witnessed the horrors of 9/11 up close. Our eyes lock briefly. There are ghosts there.
I take the elevator down to street level and exit the building. I’d planned on having a drink with a friend. It would be more than one. I reflect on what I’ve just seen and heard and a single pointed thought pierces my trembling psyche: We must not lose this war.