AUDIE CORNISH, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION VEHICLE)
CORNISH: And that is the sound of the construction that is still under way at ground zero, the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York. A memorial plaza is set to open a week from today, 10 years after the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings. Amid the bulldozers and cranes, there are newly planted oak trees. Workers are putting the finishing touches on the two massive waterfalls that will flow into the foundations where the Towers once stood. The official museum won't be ready until next year. The only place where visitors to the neighborhood can learn about the events of that day - at least, for now - is at a little storefront on Liberty Street.
LEE IELPI: This was actually a fast foods salad bar before 9/11. So it was destroyed, more or less, on the 11th. And the windows were pushed in; it was disheveled inside.
CORNISH: And this is Lee Ielpi.
IELPI: I'm retired NYC Fire. My entire life has been fire. I love firefighting. I've been a volunteer in my hometown. I like that rough and tumble idea; I like helping people.
CORNISH: With his thinning hairline and strong nose, Ielpi looks a little like New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In fact, tourists sometimes stop him for photos. And you wouldn't think he was so rough and tumble from the easy way his handshake moves into a hug, or from the way his voice drops a little midsentence, like he's sharing secret.
IELPI: Age is 21. I was - all right, so it's a little lying.
CORNISH: Ielpi is 67 years old. He's president of the September Eleventh Families Association. And while the museum across the street was mired in politics, the families association opened the Tribute WTC Visitors Center a few years after the attacks. But that's not where Lee Ielpi's story starts. His journey to this place began 10 years ago, on September 11th.
IELPI: I was at home having a cup of coffee. And the phone rang, and it was Jonathan.
CORNISH: His oldest son, also a New York firefighter.
IELPI: Saying, turn the television on, Dad. And I turned it on and I said, are you going? Within that instant, you could hear the tone in the background, which means they're going to be going out on a run, all right? So he said, Dad, it's for us. We're going to the World Trade Center. I said, OK, buddy, be careful. He said OK, Dad. And that's the last time we spoke.
CORNISH: Shortly after that call, Ielpi headed down to ground zero.
IELPI: My mission was simple. You know, even though I'm retired, I wanted to make sure my son was OK, and then I would continue to help. It didn't take long before you could see into the site and realize that this is going to be a very bad day for a lot of people.
CORNISH: Day turned into night, night into a week, a week into months. The emergency response mission turned to one of recovery. Now, 10 years later, Lee Ielpi is still here, still telling his story.
IELPI: We're starting our walk through the timeline. From Gallery 1, it just kind of flows into Gallery 2, Gallery 3.
CORNISH: Ielpi is co-founder of this small museum, known as the Tribute Center. And sometimes, he still gives tours - in this case, an early one before the crowds come. Glass cases perch on the walls of each gallery. Bit by bit, they reveal the stories found buried in the rubble of ground zero.
IELPI: This is one of the more powerful pieces that we have in Tribute. As you look at it, you're going to see what you might think is the window of a jet. Well, it is. It's one of the jets that struck one of the towers. It is the window that you look out. It's as if you're on the inside of the jet, looking out your window.
CORNISH: Many of the pieces are donated by relatives of the victims; others, by the agencies and recovery workers who spent months amid the ruins.
IELPI: Part of the floor, artifacts - a spoon with a hole in it, keys from the towers, a menu from Windows on the World. How can you, you know, in nine months that I was here I never saw a desk, file cabinet, chairs, computers. But something like the menu from 100-plus floors up in the air, in its natural state? Why? How could it do that? Because it's light.
CORNISH: Ielpi donated to the museum, too. He worked for all nine months of the recovery mission, alongside fellow firefighters and other fathers looking for their sons. And it would be three months to the day after the towers fell that he got word of Jonathan.
IELPI: I was home. I was sitting at home; 11:30, the phone rang. It was the chief in charge of the site for the night. And as soon as I heard his voice, I knew. And all he said was, Lee, we have Jon. So I got my other son, Brendan, also a firefighter at the time; came to the site. Got here about maybe 1 o'clock in the morning, I guess, and it went down the little horrible road that was built within the site to bring equipment in and out. And in the tradition of the New York City Fire Department, we carry out our own, right? So my son Jonathan was in a stokes basket with a flag over him. So I went over and did what I had to do to my son. Brendan went over and did what he had to do to his brother. And then myself and Brendan and some men from Squad 288 picked up Jonathan and carried him out of the site. So we were blessed. Jonathan is one of the 174 whole bodies - what is considered a whole body. And then a week or so after that, we found his turnout coat - it was ripped off. A week or so after that, we found his helmet.
CORNISH: The helmet was battered and blackened. The right side of that black and gold fireman's jacket is torn. Both items now sit in glass case at the heart of the Tribute Center galleries. Lee Ielpi, who up until this point pressed his face to the glass of each case, waves past this one.
IELPI: That is my son's.
CORNISH: Lee, did you ever regret having it on display?
IELPI: No, not at all. Do you know how many people have taken pictures of my son's turnout coat, worldwide?
CORNISH: But I notice you won't go...
CORNISH: ...too close to it.
IELPI: No, it's a difficult place to go. But my son is around the world, and if people want to use my son as a remembrance of understanding the sacrifices that were made that day by many, many, many people - not just firemen - well, my son is serving another mission now, isn't he?
CORNISH: This is the real mission of the museum: celebrating the lives of the victims, honoring their families, and sharing in what they can teach us. There are no references to the breakdowns in first responder radio systems, of the hijackers or the politics of the wars that followed. And nowhere is this more clear than in one of the final galleries, where there is a floor to ceiling, wall-to-wall collage of mementos of those who were lost. There are home photos, school pictures, baseball caps, handwritten notes, and even a death certificate marked homicide - all donated by families of 9/11 victims. So what started as a temporary memorial to fill the gap while the official museum was built now has a life of its own.
For all these years, you've had this role as a voice for families of the victims. And I've seen your comments on everything from the controversy over building a mosque in the neighborhood to issues with firefighters. And have you ever reached a point or a day where you thought, I can't do this today. I can't talk about this anymore?
IELPI: Yesterday, last week, five months ago, five years ago, 10 years ago. Yeah, it's difficult. Every day is difficult. You know, 'cause I know I'm going to talk about my son and all the beautiful people that I lost that day - maybe 80, 100 good friends. You know, but that keeps it real for me, and it keeps it real for you. So every day I think about it, right. I want to start fishing again, and hunting and hiking and camping. I will, but I think what we're doing here is more important.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: Lee Ielpi, president of the September Eleventh Families Association, and co-founder of the Tribute WTC Visitors Center. You can visit our website to see excerpts from a new book of reflections collected from visitors over the years. In it, there are children's drawings of hearts and wings - some draw planes and towers. Foreign tourists scribble out long missives in their native languages - French, Mandarin and Arabic. On the first page, there's just a single word: Why?