Much like the statue of fallen firefighter Jonathan L. Ielpi loomed over Vigilant Fire Chief Joshua Charry and his father, Rabbi Marim Charry, at a Sept. 11 memorial ceremony, a 17-year-old shadow still hung over several local first responders.
Both Charrys led the Tuesday event, where members of the Alert, Vigilant and the Manhasset-Lakeville fire companies came to memorialize the fallen on Rosh Hashanah – in Jewish tradition, the day when God decides who lives and dies in the coming year.
Rabbi Charry said that while one cannot change this decree, people can look up to repent, move forward with deeds and pray for the power to “strengthen our resolve” to respond to horrific events with heroism.
“We will be ready to respond with what we do to protect life and property,” Charry said.
Among the countless who responded with heroism, Chief Charry told those gathered, was his friend Jonathan Ielpi, then 29, who died trying to help people escape the South Tower when it collapsed at 9:59 a.m.
“I know he’s up there somewhere, pulling pranks and pissing the other guys off … But only until the house alarm sounds, because then he’s all business,” Chief Charry said, as he started to choke up. “John, you are missed by many on a daily basis – I am proud, and honored, to say that I could call you my friend.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 – exactly 17 years ago – nearly 3,000 people were killed when terrorists hijacked and crashed four airliners. Two plowed into the Twin Towers, one hit the Pentagon, and the fourth crashed onto a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers fought back.
Five Great Neck residents were among those killed: Peter Christopher Frank, Frederick Kuo Jr., Joshua Vitale, Andrew Stergiopoulos and Ielpi, for whom Firefighters Memorial Park on Grace Avenue is named.
“Starting at 8:46 a.m., our routines were shattered,” Charry said, “our national and personal senses of security were traumatically torn away.”
Charry, then a member of the 911 Paramedic Unit of North Shore Forest Hills, said when the Twin Towers were struck, several units were called down to 1 Trade Center in Manhattan. Charry and his partner listened over their radios as chaos unfolded.
“It was nothing short of a knockout punch,” Charry recalled.
Charry helped cover the workload vacuum left by other units, he said, while keeping in touch with friends and firehouse members for updates.
Then, after mutual aid EMS units were called in for a briefing – where the New York City Fire Department’s “top echelons of firefighters” were described as “beyond decimated – Charry said a senior Vigilant firefighter pulled him aside to see if he’d heard any news about their team.
While one Vigilant volunteer was accounted for, that wasn’t the case for many others – including Ielpi, who worked with the New York City Fire Department.
“Jake looked me in the eye and said, ‘You know he’s probably gone, right?'” Charry said. “I returned his gaze and I said, ‘Yeah, I know.'”
Over the next week, Charry said he went to Ground Zero three times. He said it then took him several years to muster enough courage to return.
“The sites, sounds and smells are permanently seared in my memory,” Charry said.
But now he said there is a new challenge in conveying the depth of the incident as something other than a “cold, unfeeling history lesson.”
“We have new members of our fire departments and ambulance corps who were only toddlers, and in some cases not even born yet when 9/11 took place,” Charry said. “These members can’t possibly know the pain and the grief first responders worked under and with in the weeks and months afterwards.”
“We do it by not forgetting,” Charry said. “We do it by telling the stories, by attending the memorials, by visiting the graves of those lost.”
Rabbi Charry helped conclude the service with a prayer for peace, calling upon God to instill compassion upon leaders and help usher in a world not “ravaged by war.”
“Let love and justice flow like a mighty stream. Let peace fill the earth as the waters fill the sea,” Charry said. “And let us say: Amen.”
The ceremony was punctuated by silent salutes and a mourning trumpet.