“Our Flag Was Still There”
Everyone knows where they were when the planes hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. I was in my office at 130 Prince St. in lower Manhattan, when a call came in from one of my co-workers who said she’d be late because an airplane had hit one of the Twin Towers. I remember thinking, “Sure and the dog ate your homework”. When she insisted I put on the T.V., I saw the second plane hit. I rushed outside and stood transfixed. In
what seemed like an instant, the view of the Twin Towers was transformed into a blinding cloud of ugly smoke. Little did I know then, how the circumstances of that day would affect my life.
I had, through my employer, an advertising and marketing guru, met many interesting and famous people. But when in 2005, we were asked by Lee Ielpi to photograph the artifacts rescued from the Trade Center site before they would be placed in his under construction Tribute Center, I met another kind of greatness. Lee was a FDNY firefighter for 26 years and a volunteer firefighter in Great Neck for another 38 years, receiving 24 recognitions of exemplary service. Prior to joining FDNY, Lee was a US Army Recon specialist in Vietnam
and was awarded 3 medals for valor.
A half hour after the collapse of the second tower, Lee and his son Brendan, also a firefighter, reported to the WTC site to start the rescue cleanup and recovery process. On Dec 11, 2001, he and Brendan carried out the body of his other son Jonathan who was lost on that fateful day. Putting aside his own grief, he joined with Jennifer Adams to create the Tribute Center, a place where people who suffered loss of a loved one that day could come together to help and get help in their time of sorrow. He believed that as long as people who were most deeply touched by the events of September 11, 2001 could tell their story, this
tragedy would never be forgotten.
The 911 Tribute center is that physical place where people can meet surrounded by beautifully displayed artifacts from the WTC site with their story told in words and pictures. A room in the lower level of the Tribute Center is especially moving, although the walls, tables, and chairs are not impressive. It is the place where people who have lost someone, or just people who want to offer their prayers, can write them and pin them on the wall for all to see.
My employer began the process of photographing the artifacts, but when he came to Lee’s son’s uniform and helmet he and Lee were unable to continue. I carried on, surrounded by items such as melted glass from the buildings, pieces of the aircraft, and melted police revolvers. When I came to the flag that was miraculously recovered from the rubble, I felt the presence of all those who were lost that day crying out to me. I carefully and respectfully opened the flag that was folded in the ceremonious triangular shape that is done at military
funerals. I photographed it and shed a tear as I remembered the message of the Star Spangled
Banner, “Our flag was still there”. How many times had I sung the words of Sir Francis Scott
Key, yet now they had new meaning for me. I shall never forget that moment and I pray that America will never have to experience such a tragedy again.
My lone photo of the fallen flag, the original signed by Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Thomas Von Essen, then Fire Commissioner who lost his entire command that day, along with so many other fire fighting heroes, hangs in the Tribute Center. It is a reminder to all who visit that while we have suffered horrific loss, we will continue to survive.