Firefighters' Families Still Grieve

Lee Ielpi CBS/The Early Show

On Sept. 11, firefighters responded to the call from World Trade Center as if it was a routine job – put out the fires, rescue those who were trapped, and then go home to their families.

But it didn't turn out that way.

The loss of so many firefighters was overwhelming and heartbreaking for families.

Three of the many family members who lost loved ones visited The Early Show. Rosellen Dowdell lost her husband, Lee Ielpi lost his son, and Zach Fletcher lost his twin brother.

Firefighter's Widow Remembers

Rosellen said all Kevin wanted was to be a firefighter, even after spending a year as a cop. When the fire department called for his services, he switched without hesitation.

Rosellen was married to Kevin for 21 years before he died. Kevin was a firefighter for two decades.

She says Kevin loved being a fireman. He enjoyed being in a busy firehouse and working with his peers.

On Sept. 11, when Rosellen did not hear from Kevin, she knew it was bad. She didn't initially think he died. But she was up all night, watching the same tape, in shock, waiting to hear from him. As time went on, it got worse for her because she knew she wasn't going to hear from him.

Rescuers never found Kevin's remains.

A Father Burying His Son

Jonathan Ielpi wanted to follow in the footsteps of Lee, his father, a 57-year-old highly decorated retired firefighter that was with the FDNY for 26 years.

The day of the attack, Jonathan called his father to inform him that he was going to the WTC site.

The last words Lee said to his son were: "Jon, be careful." Lee said he remembers that conversation every day, thousands of times.

Lee realized that his son probably perished in the trade towers collapse after three months. He took it upon himself to look for Jonathan's body so that he may receive a proper burial. Lee made a promise that he didn't even tell his wife. He would work at ground zero until every body was recovered, every last piece of debris removed, and brooms swept. And, hopefully, he would find his son.

On Dec. 11, Lee's wish was granted. His son Jonathan had been found. Lee was one of the lucky ones. Only 293 whole bodies were found — of 2,819 killed.

The Bond Of Twins

Zach and Andre were fraternal twins. The only siblings grew up in the tough neighborhood of Bushwick/East New York. That was the busiest area for fires in the city and a stage for real life heroics.

Zach and his brother would watch the fire engines fly through the streets, with firefighters hanging on the back of the truck – preparing to fight fires.

The twins thought firefighters were cool. Zach said he knew he wanted to fight fires from the age of five.

The twins went their separate ways after junior-high school, but decided it was best to attend the same high school. After graduations, they went to separate colleges, but then Andre transferred to Zach's college. Andre studied business and Zach started with architecture then moved to computer science.

Zach worked as an EMT and various other odd jobs and then a hospital. Andre worked as an EMT and then in a hospital as an ER tech. They always wanted to do things together — looked out for each other.

In 1987, at 23, Zach took the test to become a firefighter. So did Andre. Both brothers scored very high, over 97 percent, but Andre edged out Zach by 3/10's of a point.

It took both of them seven years to get in. The two African-Americans were told, when they took the test, that there was a hiring freeze. Even today, there are fewer than 400 African-Americans and Latinos in the whole department.

Andre started at an Engine company in Queens for two years. At the same time, he got a full EMT certification, so he worked a second job with a hospital. Andre then went to an engine company in Brooklyn and eventually found himself at Rescue 5. He had been there about a year and half before Sept. 11.

Zach wasn't working officially on Sept. 11, but went into the city to get administration papers. Zach saw all the smoke from downtown and called his brother. His brother wasn't supposed to work that day, but he was working overtime.

The two reached ground zero with their separate units. Zach was safe when the towers fell, but his brother was in harm's way.

Zach was unable to contact his brother over the radio. However, he just knew he was all right. Plus, he found that their rig only had a little damage — his brother had to be OK.

Zach remained confident everything was fine with Andre. But after two days, Zach started to worry.

He never heard from his brother. His close friend Michael Weinberg was found dead on Sept. 11. His friend Jarel Coleman, gone. His firehouse lost 15 members.
  • Rome Neal

Comments