Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dreams in Color, Dreams In Red - Lesson IV

Apropos of nothing - and I say this with a decidedly pro-Mo bias - professional sports could use more athletes like Mariano Rivera. His level of excellence, which he has maintained for more than a decade and a half, will likely never be seen again by anyone doing what he does. As remarkable as that is, the best part of Mo is his professionalism. He does not throw cream pies or otherwise conduct himself like a buffoon. He simply does what he does to maximum effect with unparalleled class. A remarkable athlete and by all accounts an even better man.

Firefighting is a family business. The FDNY has long been a multi-generational operation: sons take up a profession worked by their fathers and their fathers' fathers before them. The family network extends horizontally as well: brothers join brothers and cousins join cousins in what is nothing less than a communal calling.

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001 three separate members of the Angelini family responded to the World Trade Center. Michael Angelini was not a member of the FDNY but instead the Fire Patrol of New York, which operates under the New York Board of Underwriters, which acts to protect the interests of insurers during and after commercial property fires. Michael Angelini was in the North Tower of the World Trade Center early that morning and was among the individuals who carried the body of FDNY Chaplain Mychal Judge out of the North Tower after Father Judge was struck and fatally injured by debris from the collapse of the South Tower. Sadly for Michael Angelini, the performance of his sad duties on Father Judge's behalf was not close to the saddest thing that he - and his family - endured that morning.

Joseph Angelini, Jr., Michael's older brother by five years, was a member of Ladder Company No. 4 in Manhattan. His company's beat was the Theater District. Its motto? "Never miss a performance." On September 11, 2001, although he had worked the day before and was scheduled to be off, FF Angelini did not miss the performance. He was 38 years old. He was Donna's husband, he was Jennifer, Jacqueline and Joseph III's father and he was Anne and Joseph, Sr.'s son. Speaking of her husband shortly after he was killed in the line of duty in the South Tower Donna Angelini said, "He was the air in my lungs, and now that air is taken away from me. I keep waiting for him to come off a 24 [hour shift] and come through the door and say, 'You wouldn't believe what happened to me today.'"

Time does not lessen the pain of all wounds. Shortly before the tenth anniversary of his death, Donna Angelini said, "We lost the heart. When he walked in the door, anything wrong seemed so senseless. The kids' eyes would always light up. They don't have that anymore. That's what's so hard."

An argument could be made - without an attempt at rebuttal from this corner - that the price extracted from the Angelini family was more than high enough when Joseph, Jr. was killed in the South Tower. Sadly, Joseph, Jr. was not the only Angelini who died while doing his duty that morning. Joseph Angelini, Sr. - the family patriarch - was a member of Rescue 1 in Manhattan. FF Angelini, Sr. was the most veteran firefighter in the FDNY with forty years on the job. Speaking of his father Michael Angelini said, "Three things were important to my father: his family, the church and the department, and I'm not sure in what order."

Joseph Angelini, Sr. was sixty-three years of age. He was one of eleven members of the FDNY's elite Rescue 1 unit who died at the World Trade Center. And even worse, he was one of two members of the Angelini family. There may be no crueler, incomplete way to measure loss than arithmetically. Two is not typically thought of as a "large" number. Until it is.

FF Jonathan Lee Ielpi, Squad 288, Queens was his father's son. Considering that his father is Lee Ielpi, a legend in the FDNY as a highly decorated member of Rescue 2, it was and remains a well-earned compliment. FF Ielpi had been a member of the FDNY for five years. In addition to working with Squad 288 in Queens, he was also the First Assistant Chief of the Volunteer Vigilant Fire Department in Great Neck, Long Island, the town where he was born. And the town where he lived with his wife Yesenia and their two boys Andrew and Austin.

There is an old adage about fathers and sons and the sins of the formers being visited upon the latter. It is not always the bad stuff that passes from generation to generation. And death cannot sever an unbreakable bond. FF Ielpi's father, Lee, spent every day at the World Trade Center site taking part in the search through the debris for bodies. When a body of a firefighter was recovered, he assisted in the process of getting that fallen brother out of the debris and on his final journey home.

For close to three months after his son died, Lee Ielpi searched in vain for Jonathan. Finally, on a cold December day - the 11th to be precise, the body of FF Ielpi was recovered. The father who never stopped searching brought home the son who was taken from him but who was not lost to him. And who worked side-by-side with Lee Ielpi on his search? FF Ielpi's younger brother Brendan, who was a probationary firefighter ten years ago in Brooklyn. Together the Ielpis - father and son - brought FF Jonathan Ielpi out of hell and carried him home.

A decade later, Lee Ielpi runs the Tribute WTC Visitors Center. A decade later Brendan Ielpi is still fighting fires out in Brooklyn. What else would you have them do?

Theirs is, after all, a family business.

-AK

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