The story of the steel: WTC steel, now found around the world, helps tell the story of 9/11

Retired FDNY Firefighter Lee Ielpi’s mission to collect and share WTC steel focuses on remembrance and education


November 2001. Retired FDNY Firefighter Lee Ielpi stands on Vesey Street in lower Manhattan looking at two large flatbed tractor-trailers, a crane and an enormous quantity of steel – wreckage of the World Trade Center towers.

Ielpi had been thinking about how to collect pieces of the steel for the FDNY to distribute to fallen firefighters’ families, fire department members, and others who had supported the agency and the city after the September 11 attacks. He feared this precious, monumental piece of history being relegated to scrapyards.

A friend at the site, Charlie, coordinated the flatbed trucks, they were loaded up, and now the drivers needed to know where to go.

“I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be interesting,’” Ielpi recalled of the uncertainty in his answer. “So I told him where to take it” – the FDNY training area on Randall’s Island, a secure area with a fence.

Ielpi had spoken to the chief in advance. His intentions were known. But in that moment, looking at this massive collection of steel, he was looking over his shoulder still: “I’m saying to myself, ‘We’re going to get locked up. I can see it. Charlie’s going to go to jail. I’m going to be locked up.”

But the Port Authority police never came to arrest him, still to this day.

The pride Ielpi feels in this 20-year-long project to collect and share steel runs deeper than devotion to the city and FDNY.
The pride Ielpi feels in this 20-year-long project to collect and share steel runs deeper than devotion to the city and FDNY. (AP Photo/The Record of Bergen County, Chris Pedota)

A mission to memorialize

It might be easy to wonder why Ielpi – a long-revered member of FDNY – would worry over his collection, but at the time, several people had been kicked off the site for removing artifacts, whether a piece of steel or plane, anything, from the massive crime scene. “How dare you take that?” The charges could be heard around the 16-acre site.

Ielpi had a different take on it: “These people are volunteering their time. They are picking up body parts. Don’t you think they might need something to give to their children to pass down to their grandchildren to show that this is what my great-granddad did? In retrospect, they were correct, but it became a little ridiculous.”

There needed to be a system, a process to gather these artifacts of tragedy. And from there, a mission was born. With department support, Ielpi took to the pile with a can of spray paint and began marking pieces of steel for formal collection.

“That began a wonderful piece of history, because here we are – it’s 20 years later and no later than two weeks ago, someone called me requesting a piece of steel from the World Trade Center, wanting to know if it was still available and possible to get. After 20 years, we’re still giving out steel. I find it extremely rewarding.”

The pride Ielpi feels in this 20-year-long project to collect and share steel runs deeper than devotion to the city and FDNY. Ielpi’s son Jonathan – a firefighter with Squad 288 – was killed in the collapse of the very buildings his father was now intent on conserving. The fire service had played such a significant role in the senior Ielpi’s life, and now he would continue to serve, even under these very different circumstances.

‘The love of fighting fires’

Lee Ielpi began thinking about the fire service in his teenage years. The problem, he said: “I did not know anything, not a hill of beans about the fire service.” What he had figured out was that when the town siren blared, within minutes, fire apparatus would be flying past the house. His interest was piqued.

“So I asked a couple of questions at the volunteer fire department and was told ‘You can join.’

“‘I can?’”

And so began his career – what he called “the love of fighting fires” – with the Great Neck Vigilant Volunteer Fire Company on Long Island in 1963.

Ielpi loved the thrill of riding on the big red fire truck with the lights and sirens blaring. He similarly enjoyed his time on the ambulance. “It was exciting to go and help people,” he recalled.

The young volunteer soon decided he wanted to become a New York City firefighter. He took the entry exam and did quite well, but Uncle Sam had other plans. Ielpi was drafted into the Army and shipped off to Vietnam. It was his first experience with a large-scale loss, with half of his platoon killed.

After returning home in 1970, Ielpi jumped right back into his FDNY career. He made it known that he wanted to work in a busy house – and he got it with Engine 227 in Brooklyn. It was a very different experience than the volunteer world on Long Island: “We went to fires just about every single solitary day of the year. I think the company averaged about two or three working fires in a 24-hour period. It was great.”

But it was about to get even busier. In 1977, Ielpi transferred to Rescue 2: “There wasn’t anybody busier than Rescue 2,” he said of the company he called home for 19 years. “My plan was to spend another 35 years there, but it wasn’t to be.”

His body was banged up. He had been involved in multiple building collapses, one where a few members had to be dug out. And after a particularly serious fire where he was struck by structural beams, Ielpi found himself with injuries that made it impossible to continue. And so, he retired in 1996.

An unimaginable search

After retirement, Ielpi’s life was still tightly connected to FDNY through his sons. Jonathan had been on for six years. Brendan had been a probationary firefighter for four months on September 11. Brendan responded with his company, arriving at the site just after the second tower collapsed. Jonathan’s entire company was killed.

Ielpi and Brendan spent considerable time searching for Jonathan. Ielpi ultimately worked the pile the full 9 months it was an active site, even after having recovered Jonathan’s body months earlier. He considers himself one of the lucky few in that he was able to bring his son home.

Lee Ielpi pauses near Ground Zero in New York, where he later found the remains of his son, Jonathan.
Lee Ielpi pauses near Ground Zero in New York, where he later found the remains of his son, Jonathan. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Word spreads about the steel

It was during those first few weeks of the recovery effort that Ielpi had the idea about capturing steel – a way to memorialize this historic day and honor the fallen members, like his son.

He spoke with then-Chief of Department Sal Cassano, who gave him the go-ahead to proceed with his vision to collect and distribute steel. And when those flatbed tractor-trailers rolled into lower Manhattan, it all became very real.

Once at Randall’s Island, the steel would be transformed from wreckage to honorable artifact. The team started with shadow boxes of the steel, 3,000 of them to be exact, for FDNY. Each box contained a piece of steel roughly the size of an index card, and they were rough, just like at the site, dirty and jagged.

“The box was beautiful,” Ielpi said. “It came out great.”

Then the Port Authority called, asking if Ielpi could do something similar for them.

“That kind of solidified the fact that they’re not going to arrest me,” Ielpi chuckled.

He made another 3,000 pieces of steel for them, and from there, it took off: “The word went around a little bit, and people started calling. Fire departments would call from all over the country. Military bases would call from all over the country. Police departments would call from all over the country. Cities would call from all across the country. We had to ration it.”

Ielpi’s project focused primarily on small pieces – most approximately 2 feet long, 14 inches wide, and 1 to 2 inches thick, each weighing about 60 pounds. People would call and say they needed, for example, two large beams 8 feet tall to make a memorial that resembled the towers – but they simply couldn’t accommodate these requests, knowing they would run out of material within a year or two.

But there were large pieces of steel that had made their way around the country, in some cases from individuals who took the steel directly from the site on their own. And there were other large pieces that were distributed through Ielpi’s project for special requests.

Shared support after tragedy

One such special request was symbolic of shared support following tragedy.

In the spirit of shared recovery and rebirth, the United States gifted to Japan a large origami crane sculpture, with 3-foot-wingspan, fashioned from World Trade Center steel.
In the spirit of shared recovery and rebirth, the United States gifted to Japan a large origami crane sculpture, with 3-foot-wingspan, fashioned from World Trade Center steel. (Photo/911 Tribute Museum)

Ielpi shared the story of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who died from the effects of radiation following the World War II bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. She had created countless origami cranes as she struggled to beat her illness. Sasaki’s death in 1955 was later memorialized in the Hiroshima Peace Park.

Following the 9/11 attacks, Japan gifted the United States one of Sasaki’s final origami cranes, a symbol of hope. “It’s the size of a dime,” Ielpi described. “It’s perfect.”

Then in 2011, 10 years after one of America’s darkest days, Japan faced one of its own. A massive earthquake and resulting tsunami killed 20,000 people.

By that time, Ielpi had co-founded the 9/11 Tribute Museum, a project of the September 11th Families Association. Representatives from the Museum traveled to Japan to speak about recovery efforts, focusing on the theme “tomorrow being a better day.” And in the spirit of shared recovery and rebirth, the Museum and FDNY gifted to Japan a large origami crane sculpture, with 3-foot-wingspan, fashioned from World Trade Center steel. The crane now sits atop a marble pedestal in a Fukushima park.

“It’s a phenomenal piece,” Ielpi remarked.

A piece of World Trade Center steel on display at the 9/11 Tribute Museum.
A piece of World Trade Center steel on display at the 9/11 Tribute Museum. (Photo/9/11 Tribute Museum)

Saluting the steel

Here at home, some steel transports garnered the high-profile security details sometimes associated with foreign dignitaries or politicians.

In one case, a large piece of steel being transported on a flatbed truck from New York to North Carolina’s Fort Bragg was escorted by New York City police, followed by motorcycles and fire apparatus. They transported the steel to the state line, where New Jersey state police picked it up from there, escorting it down the New Jersey Turnpike.

“No cars were allowed on the turnpike,” Ielpi recalled. “It was monumental. The cops would fly up ahead, they blocked the entrances to get onto the Turnpike so nobody’s coming on and nobody’s going to be driving past this steel.”

The same transfer of protection occurred at the state lines of Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. And when the steel would come to an overpass, firefighters and others would stand and salute as it passed below.

‘All over the world’

Beyond honoring the fallen, the steel served to educate: “We will learn from this piece of steel,” Ielpi emphasized.

And because it was a project of extreme significance, each request warranted a serious review. Interested agencies must write a letter – on letterhead from an official entity, like the department, mayor or commissioner. Requests were never guaranteed, but if the proper channels were followed, the request was typically granted. Ielpi would further underscore the educational purpose of the steel.

“We want it where the general public can see it, touch it,” he would advise, adding the encouragement to include a plaque that reflected enlightenment and education, what the steel means and how it affected the world.

“And that’s the way we do it to this day,” Ielpi said. “It’s gone all over the world – all over the world.”

Approximately 7,000 pieces of World Trade Center steel have been shared – and Ielpi continues to field requests to this day. It’s one of many ways he continues to support FDNY, New York City, the United States and, most importantly, his family.

“I like the thought that by giving a piece of steel, it's another remembrance of my son.”

Editor's Note: Thank you to the FireRescue1 community members who shared photos of the World Trade Center steel on display in their communities, compiled in the video below.

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