We say, “never forget” when we think of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. And while none of us will forget the event itself, it’s easy to lose sight of the individuals who lost their lives in the attacks.
While visiting the 9/11 Memorial in 2017, I captured these images of a white rose pegged into the name of Jonathan Lee Ielpi and of an elderly woman tenderly touching the flower.
The day I took these photos was a beautiful spring day, with weather not unlike the day of September 11, 2001. The air was warm, and the sky was a clear, piercing blue. I was practicing some street photography and wandered from Wall Street down to One World Trade Center. The white rose caught my eye, then the woman crying as she looked upon it. I chose not to photograph her face. Her grief was too great. I wanted to keep my focus on the names of the victims, and her touch of the flower felt intimate, without being exploitative.
I imagine the woman was Ielpi’s grandmother, though I don’t know that for sure, and I found the emotion on her face as she remembered him quite touching. That moment has stayed with me ever since. While each anniversary of that day has stirred memories and emotions in me, these photos have haunted me a bit since I made them in 2017. The last couple years, I find myself thinking of this person who I never met and knew nothing about. He was merely a name on a monument. This year, I decided to get to know a little about him.
Jonathan Lee Ielpi was a New York City firefighter from Great Neck, N.Y., who was assigned to Squad 288 in Maspeth, Queens. He was 29 when he died, and he left behind a wife, Yesenia, and two young sons, Andrew and Austin. He was a hockey player who gave up playing when he became a firefighter, because he didn’t want to get hurt and be unable to perform his duty.
The day he died, Jonathan called his father Lee, a retired firefighter, to tell him he was going to the World Trade Center. “Be careful” is the last thing Lee ever said to his son. Lee spent months on the pile searching for his son and discovered his body 91 days after the attacks. He continued to search the rubble for others for another six months during the recovery phase.
A statue of Jonathan now stands in his hometown of Great Neck, a bronze reminder of the day that changed not just that town, but the entire country and, indeed, the world.
Knowing these details about Jonathan have changed my view of the images. They’re much more intensely personal now. The story behind them has always been there, but hidden from me. Now, I know more about him, and the pictures feel somehow more real. They have inspired me to take more photos, do more research, and tell more stories of the victims of the attacks.
I thought I’d share this brief story about the hero who died that day so that you too might know Jonathan and remember him on this 18th anniversary.