AMERICA'S ORDEAL;
He Followed in His Hero Father's Footsteps


The flowers are dried and blown away, the votive candles extinguished, and little more than written memorials remain at the shrine to fireman Jonathan Ielpi that bloomed so suddenly last month on the Saddle Rock Bridge.

But each day, as on that first day, Ielpi's retired fireman father still gathers his tools and drives from his home in Great Neck to lower Manhattan to climb the still- smoldering pile of Twin Towers remains and sift, and search, and wait for the heavy equipment to dig down to where he is certain his son is buried. Jonathan Ielpi wanted nothing more than to follow in the footsteps of his father, Lee, a Rescue Co. 2 firefighter legendary for his exploits pulling people from fires, collapsed buildings and even cars sunk in the inky depths of the East River.

Both men were chiefs in the Great Neck Vigilants, and Jonathan, 29, a six-year veteran with Squad 288 in Maspeth, hoped to follow his father into his old Brooklyn rescue company. In Great Neck, he joined the Vigilants the day he turned 17, after the department lowered its minimum age for him. In the city, he inherited his father's department number: 12642.

"From day one - 3, 4, 5 years old - he wanted to be a city fireman, and he does it quite good, if I'm gonna brag about my son," Ielpi said yesterday morning.

But if Jonathan Ielpi walked in his father's footsteps, he did so to the rhythm of a newer generation, said Patrick Rooney, a fellow Vigilant and city firefighter. The younger man listened to Pink Floyd and Nirvana. He was accepting, a gentle teacher, someone everyone felt they could talk to. "Lee was kind of a legend; John was a person," Rooney said.

On Sept. 11, before heading to the Trade Center, Jonathan called Lee at home and told him to turn on his TV. He was last seen in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel, an area now jammed as much as six floors below ground level. The debris gets more densely packed, the deeper it goes.

"Time is wearing on us pretty bad," said Jonathan's wife, Yesenia, of Great Neck.

The family finally has made arrangements for a memorial, at the firehouse, from 6 to 9 p.m. on Oct. 26, with a church service preceding it at 2 p.m. at St. Aloysius Church in Great Neck. Yesenia Ielpi said she hopes this will help sort things out for their sons, 9-year-old Andrew and 3-year-old Austin, who still cries for his father every day.

"I tell him that Daddy's an angel and one of God's helpers, but he wants God to give him back because it's been enough time," she said.

Lee Ielpi still insists on using the present tense when speaking of Jonathan, but slips up. He recalled the time his then teenage son had ridden with him in a Rescue 2 rig to an accident where four other teenagers, all speeding and not wearing seatbelts, had been killed. Amid the chaos, a paramedic waved Jonathan over to help give CPR to one of the girls, and the young observer had jumped in without missing a beat.

"He never shied from helping people. Jonathan loved, loved . . ." Ielpi caught himself, paused half a minute to weep, then resumed. "He wants to help people."

In addition to his wife, father and children, Ielpi is survived also by his mother, Anne, his brother, Brendan, a probationary firefighter with Engine 207, and sisters Anne Marie and Melissa.