Lee Ielpi was trudging wearily across the terminal at the Pittsburgh International Airport because his buddy couldn’t.
Lee’s “buddy” is his son, Jonathan, a New York City firefighter who was killed as he raced up a staircase in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Lee carries a Mass card with Jonathan’s picture in his pocket. “That’s my buddy; from the time he was a little snot nose he wanted to be a fireman like his dad,” Lee said as we pulled out onto Route 60. Lee sighed and brushed away a tear.
Lee, one of the most highly decorated firemen in FDNY history, helped lead the search for victims at Ground Zero, and his efforts did not slacken after Jonathan’s body was found on Dec. 11. Now he is an ambassador for the dead, crisscrossing the country to talk to school and community groups about the moment that jarred all our lives and continues to shape our future.
I met Lee in New York last summer when I profiled him for a magazine. In September, he accepted my invitation to speak at Duquesne University, where I teach journalism, and later he returned to visit the Shanksville site where Flight 93 crashed. Now I was taking him to a church gathering in Niles, Ohio, so he could personally say thank you to the people who sent aid or helped at the site after 9/11. His exhaustion was understandable: He was on his way from a series of presentations in Kentucky the night before, catching a commuter flight out of a small airport at 3:30 in the morning for a three-legged flight to Pittsburgh.
Lee’s is a small, personal quest, in contrast with the artists’ renditions of the soaring new design by architect Daniel Libeskind for the WTC site that jumped off the front pages we strolled past at the airport. The centerpiece of the Libeskind project is a spire that shoots 1,776 feet into the Manhattan sky; at ground level, his plan preserves a large area that will one day be home to a memorial to the victims of 9/11. The unveiling, though, was just a starting point in what will be a fierce struggle to shape the WTC site. Politicians, agency heads and advocacy groups are already trying to redraw Libeskind’s design to suit their own interests.
Libeskind’s larger purpose is to make a statement about America past, present and future. Lee is simply trying to make sure all those people he found in pieces are properly remembered. Compromises being considered at the site make that increasingly unlikely in the eyes of the 9/11 families.
As we drove across the gray, bleak Ohio countryside, Lee pored over USA Today, the Post-Gazette and The New York Times, which all explained how Libeskind had won the design competition after an intense public relations campaign. Libeskind was hardly the only party out there spinning — Ground Zero is, after all, the most coveted ground in a very political town and everyone from the governor on down wants their fingerprints on whatever is ultimately built there. But Libeskind’s approach to gaining support for his vision was particularly personal; in a series of meetings he initiated with family members, he promised that the “bathtub” — the deep hole in which the towers were anchored and where most of the bodies were found — would be preserved all the way down to bedrock for an eventual memorial.
Lee and other family members endorsed Libeskind’s original design. They’ve always agreed that commerce must return to the WTC site. Now, the newspapers said, officials are considering putting a bus terminal in the bathtub in an effort to return Ground Zero’s subterranean spaces to practical use and to buttress the slurry wall that holds back the Hudson River. The slurry wall would still be visible in this plan, but the memorial would extend only 30 feet below street level, not 70 feet down to bedrock, to the killing ground.
Lee said officials have not yet publicly committed to the bus terminal but that the families are being told to get used to it. “Daniel Libeskind looked me right in the eye and said the memorial would extend down to bedrock,” Lee said. “Gov. [George] Pataki told me the same thing.”
Lee and other family members, however, cannot live with it, so they find themselves fighting a quixotic battle against a consortium of developers and the New York-New Jersey Port Authority — which owns the site. With brilliant circular logic, the Port Authority has explained that there is such intense tourist interest in seeing the place where all the people died that it may be necessary to put a bus terminal in the place where all the people died.
The New York Times endorsed the bus terminal plan. A down-to-bedrock memorial, it declared, would be “gloomy.” Residents of nearby Battery Park City don’t like tour buses parked on their streets. The columnist Jimmy Breslin approached Lee at a recent rally and barked, “I don’t want a cemetery in my front yard.” In his account of their conversation in Newsday, Breslin mocked the families’ position and said he was sad that illness had claimed some of his loved ones. “We don’t have any monuments for our deaths,” Breslin complained. Recalling the encounter, Lee told me he just took a deep breath and moved on.
For the families, the bottom of the towers’ footprints is consecrated ground. If Libeskind’s original design is marred by a bus terminal — and the political momentum is moving in that direction — the human tragedy of 9/11 will also be partially buried. Lee asked, “You wouldn’t put a bus terminal at Gettysburg, would you? Let me tell you, I was down in that pit day after day for nine months and it didn’t take long to figure out that the [towers’] footprints were really mass graves. Inconvenient or not, that’s where the people were, that’s where they ended up. They are the reason there is a memorial in the first place. It’s not the buildings we’re mourning.”
Lee kept turning newspaper pages but couldn’t find what he was looking for. “Where are the families?” he asked. “Where do they get their say?” I told him in each story a representative of the Coalition of 9-11 Families, of which Lee is vice president, was quoted near the bottom.
“You’re a journalist,” he said. “How do they decide who gets to be quoted and where they’ll be quoted?”
I told him that official agencies like the Port Authority and the governor’s office, and big architects like Libeskind, pretty much had hotlines into major newsrooms. Call a press conference and they will come. “You have to know who to call and what to say to them,” I said. In Niles, the Warren Tribune Chronicle covered Lee’s presentation to approximately 350 people; the larger Youngstown Vindicator passed. Daniel Libeskind was on the front page of The New York Times grinning triumphantly over the selection of his design. The Coalition of Families’ crusade to project their voice into the debate over the WTC memorial is an uphill one.
While the families of the 9/11 victims are no longer much in the news — the world keeps turning and the news turns with it — the large audiences Lee draws are proof that the public is hungry to understand and remember the personal toll of 9/11. At Duquesne, he attracted well over 400 students and faculty. Eight hundred turned out in Owensville, Ky. In Niles, people were warned away because the church couldn’t hold them all.
Lee showed me a picture of a smoky New York skyline taken on Sept. 12, 2001. Even now, the absence of the towers is disconcerting. “I show this slide when I speak,” he said. “I tell people that what’s in the background is not New York City, it’s America. This is not a World Trade Center memorial, it’s an American memorial. It’s as much for the people of Pittsburgh as it is New York.”
The day after Lee left, the Post-Gazette’s front page told of plans to build a memorial in Shanksville. The primary objectives of the organizers are to pay respectful tribute to the Flight 93 victims and to ensure the context of their deaths — an attack by a foreign-based terrorist network on the United States of America — is not forgotten. There was no talk about bus terminals.
Of course, the Shanksville site is remote and because it is not commercially contested ground it is easy to treat it as consecrated ground. The WTC site is different. It is the crossroads of lower Manhattan and whatever happens there touches the interests of many powerful people who have no trouble getting their position into the newspapers. The plane crashed in Shanksville because passengers likely overpowered the terrorists on board; it might have fallen anywhere. The twin towers — where three-fourths of the 9/11 victims died — were chosen because they are a symbol of America.
Lee asked, “How can we get our voices heard? How can we tell Americans what’s going on? You’re a journalist — can you do something to help us?”
I told him I’d try.