On an early September morning in 2010, as the sun was just beginning to rise, I woke to the voice and laughter of my 4 year old son Gavin. He was still in his room having a full conversation with someone whose voice I could not hear. We had a very protective dog who was sleeping at the foot of my bed so I wasn’t concerned with a stranger being in the house, but I was very curious who it was that was making him talk in full sentences and laugh full belly laughs when the rest of us were still asleep. I quietly walked down the hall to his room and cracked open his door hoping to get a glimpse of what was going on inside. Gavin was sitting straight and talking towards the empty foot of his bed with a huge smile on his face. As soon as he saw me he let out an annoyed sigh and pat his bed telling me to sit. When I asked who he was talking to I was expecting him to tell me it was an imaginary friend or a strange dream. I was not expecting my young child to tell me he was talking to his Uncle who passed away in 2001, before he was born.
From the moment I found out I was pregnant with Gavin, who is the oldest of my three children, I spoke to him about my brother, his Uncle, who was an Angel watching over us and him. He didn’t know details of his death. He was 4 at the time and was too young to understand, but he did know that Uncle Jonathan was/is a hero and that he was lucky to have a special Angel watching over him. Other then kid appropriate stories, there was no way that Gavin could have known the things he told me that morning while we sat on his bed.
“Mom, Uncle Jonathan was just here with me. He was sitting on my bed talking to me and making me laugh. Mom, he has a really big cut on his head but it didn’t hurt anymore.”
I tried not to allow the tears to fall from eyes as Gavin told me not to be sad. That Jonathan was OK and didn’t hurt anymore. I let him speak freely about his encounter with his Uncle. I didn’t want my emotions or words to change how he was feeling about his experience with someone who he never met in human form but was clearly a very big part of everything he did.
He told me that Jonathan, a New York City Firefighter who was killed on September 11, 2001, was wearing his dress uniform but didn’t have on his white gloves. They were in his pocket. He told me that he had a big cut on his head that he got when the building fell on top of him. It was very important to Gavin that he tell Jonathan didn’t hurt when he died. That Jonathan wasn’t scared and didn’t feel any pain. He was at peace.
Gavin spoke about meeting Jonathan in heaven, before he was born, and the two of them waiting for the right time to send him to me. They watched over me together waiting for the right time to make me a Mom and Jonathan reassured him that he would be safe on this earth with me.
As my amazement in this conversation grew, my little boy told me how his Uncle stops by the house to check on me a lot. I am the youngest of four children and when alive, Jonathan was always my protector, death was not going to stop that. My 4 year old son told me that Jonathan needed me to know that he can’t stop the bad from happening but he will always protect us and help us get through those times in any way he can.
When Gavin finished talking, I told him I heard him laughing at something that must have been very funny and asked what it was. What he said next was the validation I needed to know that what Gavin had experienced was true. He chuckled and asked me why Jonathan calls me a horse. I was a moody child and complained to Jonathan, a lot, about what ever was annoying me that day. Whether it was not feeling well or being looked at the wrong way by the cat, I would find reason to complain to him. In the middle of the complaining, Jonathan would tell me that if I was a horse they would have killed me and made me into glue. With that, Gavin laughed and said that Jonathan wanted me to know that he was sorry he ended up being the Horse.
Gavin is now 15 years old and growing up he has always reminded me of Jonathan. The things he says, the way he acts and his overall demeanor is spot on with how Jonathan was as a teen. He still remembers talking to his Uncle that morning in his room and has had other encounters and conversations with both him and his grandfather who passed away a few days shy of his first birthday. They aren’t as frequent as they once were but he knows no matter what happens in his life, he will always have his Uncle Jonathan close by.
A little after 8:00am on September 11, 2001, I pulled into my parents drive way and walked in the back door. I worked the overnight in an ER from 11:00pm on September 10, 2001 until 7:00am, September 11, 2001. I was 23 and still living with my parents, the youngest and last of the 4 siblings to still be living at home. After leaving work, I stopped at the local deli to pick up breakfast for my parents, Anne and Lee, and myself. Bacon, eggs and cheese on a roll, coffee and orange juice for all three. I knew my mother and father would already be awake and getting ready to start their days and being able to sit down and have breakfast with them was always a great way to end a shift
A little after 8:00am on September 11, 2001, my brother, Fire Fighter Jonathan Ielpi, was starting his shift at FDNY (Fire Department of New York) Squad 288 in Maspeth, Queens. As I was getting home from my over night at a hospital, Jonathan’s shift was just beginning. It wasn’t odd for him to call my parents at the beginning of his shift, he called home multiple times a day. When the phone rang a little after 8:45am, I knew it would be him on the other end of the line. Our conversation was quick, and to this day I wish I had kept him on the phone longer, but I also know that an extra minute or 30 seconds wouldn’t have changed anything.
A little after 8:45am on the beautiful blue skied morning of September 11, 2001, Jonathan told me to turn on the TV. He didn’t tell me what channel, he didn’t have to because every channel was airing the same thing. What I saw, as soon as the screen turned on, was smoke pouring out of the upper floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, or Tower One. For the one or two minutes that we spoke Jonathan’s voice sounded different. Not scared or concerned, just different from our regular good morning/goodnight conversation that we had on a daily basis. I stared at the TV screen as he told me that a large plane had hit the North Tower, Tower One, of the World Trade Center. That flight was American Airline flight 11, which took off from Boston’s Logan International Airport and was headed to California’s Los Angeles International Airport. Flight 11 was carrying 81 passengers, 11 crew member and 5 hijackers/terrorists. The only words I remember saying to Jonathan that morning, before giving the phone to my our Mother, were “Please, be careful”. That conversation, the one that I wish I said more, was the last I would ever have with Jonathan. “Please, be careful” would be the last words I would ever spoke to my brother. “Don’t worry, I will” would be the last words he ever spoke to me.
My Mother and I continued to watch the TV, flipping from one channel to the next, watching and listening to news anchors trying to make sense of the images and live feeds that were now being broadcast across the country. My father, who was watching the television out of the corner of his eye, was taking and making multiple phone calls to and from friends and family. He spoke to my older sister Anne Marie, a school teacher, who was already at work for the day. She knew that we had spoken to Jonathan and that he was on his way from his fire house in Queens to the Twin Towers in Manhattan. She was going to leave work as soon as she could and head to my parents house. He spoke to Jonathan’s wife Yesenia, who was also at work, to let her know what was happening and that it may be best to pick up my 9 year old nephew Andrew from school and 3 year old nephew Austin from the sitter and head home.
At 9:03am, as my mother got ready for work and my father spoke on the phone, I watched as United Airlines flight 175, which also took off from Boston’s Logan International Airport and was headed to California’s Los Angeles International Airport, hit the South Tower, Tower Two, of the of the World Trade Center. Flight 175 was carrying 56 passengers, 9 crew members and 5 hijackers/terrorists. As my father went silent on the phone, I yelled for my mother to come into the living room to see what happened and without any words spoken, we understood that we were under attack and nothing was ever going to be the same.
On September 11, 2001, my brother Brendan, who is 4 years younger than Jonathan and 2 years older than I, was a probationary FDNY firefighter. He was not scheduled to work that morning. Like everyone else, he heard the news and saw the TV screens so he got in his jeep and drove to our parents house. When the second plane hit the South Tower, the NYPD (New York Police Department), FDNY and PAPD (Port Authority Police Department) put out a recall of all current and able bodied retired members to go to their assigned fire house or precinct, or the closest that was still at head quarters, get on a truck or in a police car and respond to the World Trade Center.
A little after 9:00am on what is now the worst day in United States history, Brendan pulled into the drive way of my parents home. He ran in through the front door and into the kitchen where my father was waiting. My father, who was retired from FDNY Rescue 2 also heard the recall of members and was planning on heading in. I listened as they quickly grabbed what ever they could and said goodbye to my mother, promising her that everything was going to be ok. I followed as they walked back out the front door and got into the driver and front passenger seat of the Jeep. I jumped on the hood as they tried to back out of the drive way and leave. I screamed and begged them not to go to any firehouse or into the city at all, I begged them to stay. When I got down or someone removed me, I don’t remember which, they left towards the city in hopes of bring the entire family home. With my eyes full of pain and my heart full of anger, sadness and fear, I walked back into the house to find my mother grabbing her purse to head into work. As much as I told her she didn’t need to go, I also understood that work was where she needed to be. She needed to keep her mind busy and keep a sense of normalcy for as long as she could because we all knew that those would be the last “normal” moments any of us would ever have.
Earlier that morning, my friend Jacky left for school as she did every morning around 8:00am. After speaking to Jonathan and he hanging up with my parents, I gave her a call. I had already spoken to my now husband Jon, who was going to go to his volunteer fire house to see where or if they were needed in the city. I couldn’t be alone. I needed to have some one with me to help me maneuver through the day. Jacky was as close to Jonathan as any sister or friend could be, so when she heard what was going on she immediately left class and drove to find me. With my mind working in overdrive, when she showed up at my house I couldn’t figure out where I needed to be or where we could go. With no definitive plans in mind, we got in her car and drove towards the Saddle Rock bridge which had the perfect view of the Manhattan skyline. On any another day, we would have driven right over the bridge, but even with the distance to the city, it was such a beautiful blue clear sky, you could see the smoke coming off the towers. There were other people who had already stopped on the bridge and were standing outside their cars. Jacky and I joined them and with the windows down and the radio loud, we stood on the bridge, listened, watched, prayed, hoped and whispered about what could happen next.
It was close to 9:30am when Jacky and I got back in the car and started driving towards Jon’s volunteer fire house, Manhasset-Lakeville Company 4. On our way there, we listened on the radio as a third plane, American Airlines flight 77, which took off from Washington Dulles International Airport and was also headed to California’s Los Angeles International Airport, flew into the Pentagon. Flight 77 was carrying 58 passengers, 6 crew members and 5 hijackers/terrorists. It was after Flight 77 hit Pentagon that the Government confirmed we were under attack.
We parked in the back lot of Company 4’s and walked into the fire house. As we entered the lounge we saw Jon and other fire fighters watching everything unfold on two different TV’s. They were all waiting for the call telling them where in the city they would be stationed. By that time they all knew Jonathan was in one of the towers or on his way inside, and that Brendan and my father were also on their way, so when they saw the two of us walking in, other then the news anchors voices on the TV’s, the entire lounge went silent. No one knew what to say or how to approach us, but they knew they needed to say or do something. I saw the look in all of their eyes. The sorrow, pain and confusion they all felt and I wanted to take some of it away. I spoke first confirming what they already knew and giving them any new information I had received and then we joined them in waiting and watching for what would happen next.
A few minutes before 10:00am on September 11, 2001, I was standing behind a large couch in the firehouse lounge. I needed to be standing up and moving because sitting and being still gave my brain too much of an opportunity to think and thinking was the last thing I wanted to be doing. The reality and magnitude of everything going was beginning to hit all of us as the reporter starting to list names of people who she knew who worked in both towers. People who went to work that morning, worked on floors above the impact zone, and now had no way out. These innocent men and women were making calls to their families to say their final goodbyes. We watched as people had to make a horrible choice of burning to death or jumping out a window up to 110 stories above the ground. We watched as they chose to jump and their bodies fell towards the ground. I hadn’t cried yet but with each name the reporters spoke and each body we watched fall from the side of the towers, my heart cracked a little more.
At 9:59am, on September 11, 2001, as I stood behind that couch, with Jacky, Jon and members of Manhassett-Lakeville Volunteer Fire Department, I watched the South Tower, Tower Two, the second tower hit, buckled in, collapsed and disappeared in a matter of seconds. I ran out the back door of the fire house lounge to leave, but there was no where for me to go. There was nothing I could do to change what we just watched so I sat down and finally let my mind take control.
At 10:00am on September 11, 2001, as I sat on the cool steps outside the fire house lounge, with Jacky and Jon beside, I put my head in my hands and for the first time since Jonathan’s phone call less then two hours earlier, I told them what I knew with every part of my being and every ounce of my soul to be true.
A week or two after September 11, 2001, the day the towers fell, a very small portion of the World Trade Center site was opened to families of those who were still missing. Although the mission at the site had not officially been changed from a rescue – recovery mission to a recovery only mission, most of us were aware that any chance of survivors being found was gone. By allowing families to go to this small section of the site, we were able and say a prayer for our loved ones and feel closer to them and what became the final resting place for more than half of the almost 3,000 innocent victims murdered on that horrible day.
The families would meet at a dock/terminal and were brought to the site by a ferry. Each ferry held maybe 75 – 100 families members, crew members, social workers and volunteers. Members of the Red Cross met the families at the terminals and escorted them to the ferries. When my family and I got on the ferry, the Red Cross Volunteers handed each of us orange teddy bear. I don’t know if they did this for every ferry that went out, but they did it for ours. We learned that the teddy bears were donated and that they wanted us to write our loved ones name on a bow around the bears neck and tell the bear a memory or story about who we lost. We were then asked to leave the bears at the site so they could be taken to a pediatric hospital or shelter. The bears, which now held our loved ones names, memories and stories, would be giving to children in the hospital and shelter.
After writing my brothers name on my bears bow and whispering childhood memories to it as I held it close, the thought of leaving it behind was the furthest thing from my mind. As I stepped off the ferry I continued to hold the bear tight to my Chest. I cried to the bear. I silently prayed to the bear. I focused on the comfort of the bear to keep me grounded. When getting ready to go back to the ferry, I could not leave the bear. It was my security and I needed it to keep me from losing any strength and courage I had left. So as most people left their bears at the designated site, a few of us did not. We took our Bears home.
For the last almost 20 years now this now fading Orange bear has been with me almost every single night. This bear is the keeper of all my secrets and the guardian of my dreams. It has been with me through every up and every down I have had in my adult life. It was with me my last year living in my childhood home. It made it through two apartments and now the house I share with my husband and three children. It has come with me on weekend trips, vacations and even on my honey moon. It spent countless nights in tents and campers during our family camping trips. It has been on weekend visits to see friends and family, hotels for ice hockey tournaments, and quick overnights just because.
It was with me when I was sick in a hospital bed for almost a week due to food poisoning. Spent the night with me on a surgical floor after having spinal surgery on my neck. It offered comfort when I lost loved ones and never complained when I would sob on its arm. It was with me on the maternity floor for all 3 childbirths, one of which was a 4 week bed rest stay.
My orange bear, who I call Mr. Bear, is old now and has lost a lot of his firmness over the years. He doesn’t look as good as he once did but over time we have all aged in one way or another. My children know the story of Mr. Bear and have all spent nights snuggled up next to me with him in their arms. I like to think of those nights as my brother being with them. I’ve had to sew a few holes and he lost his orange bow, but over the years Mr. Bear has been there for every tear, yell, laugh, hug, snuggle and the occasional throw of frustration across a room. I know that one day Mr. Bear will be too old to withstand even the gentle hugs and he will need to sit on the nightstand instead of on mine or one of the kids beds. Until that day, I will continue to bring him to any overnight, sports tournament, camping trip and vacation. He will continue to be the security and support for me and my children who sometimes need him as much or even more than I do.
What started as an Orange Bear given to me on a ferry ride to the World Trade Center site back in late September of 2001, has become my Mr. Bear. 20 years of tears, snuggles, laughs, hugs, throws, and love from me and my children. The Orange Bear that was meant to comfort a child in the hospital became a bear that has comforted me and my family in all parts of our lives.