Ten years after the shattering events of Sept. 11 introduced firefighter Lee Ielpi to recovery volunteer Jean Grillo in New York City, the two friends are working together to ensure that the sacrifice and heroism of thousands of victims, recovery workers and volunteers are not forgotten.
In the weeks after the World Trade Center was destroyed, they met inside of nearby St. Paul’s Chapel, where Grillo was serving hot meals to tired workers digging through acres of destruction at ground zero. Ielpi, meanwhile, was among those searching for the dead, including the body of his son, Jonathan, also a firefighter.
“I’d go by the tables ladling out stuff,” recalls Grillo, now 66. “Lee and I are around the same age, and we started to talk. We’re both Italian, and family is very important to us. We just bonded.”
Ielpi noticed that Grillo, who is a longtime resident of lower Manhattan, had a natural instinct for responding to the workers’ anguish as the death count grew.
“If we needed to be left alone, she’d leave us alone,” recalls Ielpi, 67. “If we needed somebody to put a hand on our shoulder, to talk to, she was there.”
Today, Grillo shows the same sensitivity and Ielpi demonstrates the same passion at another 9/11 operation just down the street from the historic Episcopalian chapel. She leads tours at the Tribute WTC Visitor Center, a nonprofit museum that Ielpi was instrumental in establishing in 2006.
Located across the street from the site of the fallen World Trade Center, the museum pays tribute to the 2,973 people murdered in the terrorist attacks on the twin towers, in addition to their family members and the recovery workers and volunteers who were affected by the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Among those honored is Ielpi’s oldest son, who was 29 and the father of two young sons when he died. His remains were found three months after the attacks, surrounded by fellow firefighters from Engine 288 in Queens.
Jonathan’s helmet and other battered fire gear are on display in the museum, which tells the story of 9/11 with personal artifacts and images, including one room covered from floor to ceiling with photographs of the victims.
The storefront museum, created by the nonprofit September 11th Families’ Association, has served as the primary 9/11 memorial while the city developed its own memorial, scheduled for completion this year. The center has attracted more than 500,000 visitors annually.
Grillo is among more than 250 docents who volunteer their time to lead tours at the center, where Ielpi, now a retired firefighter who lives in Great Neck, N.Y., frequently mingles with visitors to talk about the exhibits, ask children what they’ve learned about 9/11 in school, or share stories about Jonathan, one of more than 400 first responders killed while performing their sworn duty.
Ielpi stresses that most everyone associated with the center comes from “the 9/11 community”— rescue workers, volunteers, people who lost loved ones, or those who lived or worked near ground zero.
“Who better to tell the story than people who lived it,” he says, “and to tell it in a positive way and leave people with a positive thought for tomorrow.”
For Grillo, Ielpi is a perfect example of the 9/11 heroism, honor and triumph that she emphasizes as a tour guide.
“There are some parents who lost firefighter sons who cannot get rid of the bitterness and hate,” she says. “Lee and others have moved into a realm of giving and communal shared sacrifice for a better good.”