NYTimes.com Article: Still Digging for Lost Sons After a Million Tons of Pain
- Subject: [cg] NYTimes.com Article: Still Digging for Lost Sons After a Million Tons of Pain
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- Date: Tue, 8 Jan 2002 17:03:08 -0800 (PST)
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Many of our gardens have honored and continue to honor the folks who were lost on September 11th. The front garden bed that I work on will be at it's prettiest during early September and I know that many gardeners with me and throughout the country are thinking about how to do something special come September.
This is a follow up piece on work that is continuing to go on at the WTC site from the NY Times.
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Still Digging for Lost Sons After a Million Tons of Pain
January 8, 2002
By CHARLIE LeDUFF
The father comes to be near his son. He digs through the
smoking steel with a small Army pick and shovel. "Where are
you, boy?" he asks. It has been the same routine for
The search by Bill Butler, a retired fire captain, has been
futile so far. After a 10-hour day at the site of the
former World Trade Center, he drives home in the dark to
His wife, Peggy, will have a pot roast and potatoes on. She
will ask how his day was. Was it a good day? And if they
found one person, he will tell her it was a good day. If
they find one finger, he tells her something was
accomplished. But mostly, they are bad days.
Mr. Butler, 62, is a member of a sad fraternity of men at
ground zero, a dozen or so who lost their sons or brothers
in the cataclysm of Sept. 11. For almost all of the 118
days since, most of these men have spent the daylight hours
in search of their kin.
They are retired firefighters and police officers and, in a
contorted way, they are the lucky ones. Because of their
careers in uniform, they are able to be near their lost
children rather than having to sit home and crumble.
But there are perils that come with their privileges. They
have come for so many days on end, one melting into the
next, that their sense of the calendar has been lost
entirely. Fishing and golf have been put off. The house
goes wanting. Their lives have been taken over. Even when a
son is found, a man from this group does not leave the pit.
He just expands his sense of mission.
"This is a hell of a way to spend your retirement," said
Lee Ielpi, a retired firefighter who found his son on Dec.
11 after 91 days of searching. "But I'm not leaving until
the last dustpan of dirt has been swept away from here."
The debris is being taken out of the hole rapidly. Close to
one million tons have been removed so far. It is not the
search that makes headlines anymore, these fathers say.
That news, to their minds, has given way to the bickering
talk of politics and money and memorials.
But the search is not over; fires still smolder and more
than 2,000 people are still missing. The men of this
fraternity are reluctant to talk about their feelings. It
goes against their code. But they do with the hope that the
public does not forget the search.
Their names are Ielpi, Vigiano, O'Berg, Butler, and they
pick through the muck of destruction, their eyes distant
and sad, speaking of nothing but death.
"They're such horrible words - was, had been, used to be,"
said John Vigiano, 63, a retired captain in the Fire
Department who lost two sons óJohn, 36, a firefighter, and
Joseph, 34, a police detective. Joseph was found in
October. John is still missing. "When I sit down there
alone, I talk to him and tell him I love him."
The fathers greet each other jokingly as doddering old men.
They talk about the war years in the Fire Department three
decades ago, when it was not uncommon to answer dozens of
calls in an evening.
The younger men see the older men hurting and, out of
respect, they call them sir. The construction workers wear
the pins memorializing the men's children; they bring them
coffee and keep them updated on the search.
For lack of better words, Mr. Ielpi, 57, is a fortunate
man. They found his son Jonathan, 29, a firefighter with
Squad 288 and a father of two, in the remains of the south
tower. Mr. Ielpi was able to carry him out. He spoke about
that day in the warmth of a construction trailer; the
workers there silent in attention.
"We found him and now I don't have to go on wondering
`Maybe?' whenever I see someone who looks like him," he
said with tears welling in his eyes.
"But to tell you the truth, I had hoped he turned coward
and ran to an island or drilled a hole behind the fridge
and was living there. I held a glimmer and then I found him
and all the air drained out of me."
Still, Mr. Ielpi cannot leave. There are other sons and it
would be unfair to leave them in the cold, underground.
There are the sons of his friends like Bill Butler, whose
son Thomas, 37, from Squad 1 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is
Mr. Butler was supposed to be off to Sarasota, Fla., this
week. Instead, he is going to sell the retirement home
because there is going to be no retirement, he said. He has
his son's three children to help raise.
They say the worst thing in life is having to bury a child.
Worse, the fathers of ground zero say, is not being able to
find that child. There remain layers and layers of packed
floors, with sons somewhere in between.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking man at the 16-acre hole is
Dennis O'Berg. Mr. O'Berg, 53, had 31 years in the
department. His last tour of duty was Sept. 11. His son,
Dennis Jr., also a firefighter, died at the trade center. A
few days later, Mr. O'Berg put in his retirement papers.
"I had enough," he said.
Mr. O'Berg did not come back to
the site for a very long time. He needed to steady his
legs. Then the calendar turned and he returned. He speaks
very little. "I feel he's deep down," Mr. O'Berg said as he
surveyed the steaming heap.
But with every piece that gets sifted, turning up nothing,
a little hope flutters away. Parts of the pit are 60 feet
deep, and with workers having hit bedrock, pools of water
have collected. The grackles and sparrows and seagulls have
The odds are better for finding a firefighter than anyone
else, since their fire-retardant gear preserves the bodies.
That reality has given rise to some tension, as a bit of
graffiti in one urinal at the site suggests: "Hey FDNY,
look for everyone, not just your own!"
"We are!" was the reply.
On Saturday, a construction
worker, judging by the boots and the clothes, was found.
Just as they do for fallen uniformed personnel,
firefighters and police officers, along with construction
workers, formed an honor guard as the body, covered with a
flag, was taken out.
"It was a sign of respect," said Bob Gray, the foreman of
the heavy machine operators. "And it was appreciated."
Given the chance, family members of the thousands of
missing civilians would almost certainly be down at ground
zero with claw hammers and boots. But that is the mixed
benefit of wearing a uniform.
There is one civilian, however, who lost a brother and has
been at ground zero for all but a handful of days.
Brian Lyons, 41, spent the first 20 days on the pile.
Before the calamity, he had a desk job as a construction
project manager with a big Manhattan firm. He earned six
figures, he said, and wore a suit.
When his boss would not grant him a leave of absence, he
quit, and took a $30-an-hour job as a supervisor at ground
zero. This allowed him to look for his brother, Michael, a
firefighter with Squad 41.
"I know he's talking to me," Mr. Lyons said. "He's saying,
`Brian don't quit. I'm in here.' "
As if proof had to be given, Mr. Lyons spoke of an event
that cemented his resolve.
A pile of ID cards was found in the rubble of the north
tower. He picked a random one. It read: Michael Lyons. He
keeps that in his wallet now.
"He's my brother," he said during a break one day, "and I'm
going to look for him until this place is immaculate."
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