Tribute Center Connects Sept. 11's Emotional Threads

The tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks is a little more than a week away. While many of us will remember what happened that day, some will struggle to talk about it. Lee Ielpi, of the September 11th Families' Association, will share his story on Weekend Edition Sunday, with the show's new host Audie Cornish.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

September 11th is approaching, the tenth anniversary of the attacks that killed thousands of Americans. Many of us will be remembering what we experienced on that day and some, even now, struggle to talk about it.

Mr. LEE IELPI (Co-president, September 11th Families Association): We can talk about slavery in school. We talk about the holocaust in school. And what is the difference? The difference is we really didn't live it. Teachers have difficulty because we experienced 9/11.

INSKEEP: That's the voice of a man who wants to help people understand that experience. He spoke with NPR's Audie Cornish who will bring us his story as she takes on a new role this weekend. She's covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She's covered Congress. And now she's the host of NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday. Audie, welcome.

AUDIE CORNISH: Hi there, Steve.

INSKEEP: So who is this man?

CORNISH: This is Lee Ielpi. He's the co-president of the September 11th Families Association, which is the group that founded this tribute center museum. This is the museum that sprung up across the street from the site of ground zero, down in Manhattan. They found a space that was a deli and decided, hey, tourists and people come down here and there's no one to tell them what's going on.

INSKEEP: So this is not the big formal memorial. This is almost like a folk museum that the families have been involved with.

CORNISH: Right. That museum is another year away from opening, officially. The Memorial Plaza will be opened on September 12th. But really, the tribute center across the street, that the families helped create is the definitive spot for now, where you can learn about the events of that day and the people, and the stories of the people who died.

INSKEEP: I bet the director has quite a story.

CORNISH: He does. Lee Ielpi is a veteran firefighter for New York City. His sons are firefighters. And he tells us a story about his oldest son, Jonathan Ielpi. And on the day of 9/11, Lee went down to the ground zero site to try and find his son.

Mr. IELPI: So I did not come in like a good firefighter, ready to go. I came in with my moccasins on. I came in with my short pants, my Rescue 2 t-shirt, 'cause I worked in Rescue 2 for 19 years in Brooklyn. And then I well, I started my search on West Street. I and whoever I find is going to be a blessing for somebody. If I meet my son along the way, great.

INSKEEP: And as I think about him, Audie, looking for his son I'm remembering that cloud of ashes that descended on Manhattan after the trade towers fell. I'm remembering the papers that fluttered down all over Manhattan from the trade towers.

CORNISH: There's all kinds of artifacts in the museum. Some are donated by people who worked at the recovery site. Some are donated by families. For instance, there was a menu from the windows on the World's Restaurant from the top of one of the towers. Another family donated a copy of a passenger ticket from someone on one of the flights that crashed into the World Trade Center building. The museum is essentially wall to wall with these kinds of artifacts.

INSKEEP: So on Weekend Edition Sunday, you're going to visit this museum by the World Trade Center site and next week, on Weekend Edition of course, you will have live coverage of the 9/11 ceremonies. What does that suggest about the kind of program that you want to bring people on Sundays?

CORNISH: I think Sunday's still going to be a place for reflection. It's still going to be a place where people can really take some time with some stories. As a reporter, especially previously, I covered Capitol Hill - a lot of my stories were very short and cramming a lot of information into a very tight space. This is a chance for things to breathe a little and to really get to hear people out.

INSKEEP: And sometimes hear the pauses, which can be as powerful as whatever people actually say.

CORNISH: Exactly. We always do the who, what, where and when, and this is the opportunity to get very deeply into the why.

INSKEEP: Well, millions of people remember Liane Hansen who was on Weekend Edition Sunday for many years and we'll be listening to you to see what you do with that space. Audie Cornish, thanks very much.

CORNISH: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Now one part of the national agenda for September 11th will go ahead as planned. The National Cathedral in Washington D.C. plans an interfaith service with President Obama delivering a keynote speech. The giant building was the location of an interfaith service soon after the attacks in 2001. Inside it, now, is a cross made of stone from the Pentagon, one of the buildings attacked.

Last week an earthquake damaged the stone building, but the 9/11 service will go ahead. Workers have been hanging nets below the ceiling so pieces of the building do not fall on anyone's head.

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