Remembering 9/11: Firefighters who gave their lives trying to save others

Bob Kelly recalls sitting on the beach along Long Island Sound with his brother Tom in September 2001. Tom had just passed the lieutenant’s test for the FDNY, where Bob also served as a firefighter.

“I said, ‘I’ll see you when I’m back at the firehouse,’ ” Mr. Kelly recalled. “And that was it. I was going to work that morning and Tommy was working the night before.”

Mr. Kelly never saw his brother again.

Tom responded on the morning of Sept. 11 to the south tower of the World Trade Center as a member of the FDNY’s Ladder 105, which was stationed in Brooklyn in close proximity to downtown Manhattan. Tom was one of five firefighters from Ladder 105 who died trying to rescue people when the building collapsed. 

As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 arrives Saturday, Mr. Kelly said “it’s numbing” that two decades have now passed since the worst terrorist attack in American history. 

“It seems, in a lot of ways, it seems like it was yesterday,” he said. “It’s just amazing that it’s 20 years ago already.”

Tom was 39 when he died. Like so many of the firefighters who got caught in the collapse, his remains could not be identified for weeks.

“People didn’t have cellphones back then the way they do now,” Mr. Kelly recalled. “And it they did, they didn’t bring them with them.”

Mr. Kelly said at one point, his parents were told that Tom had perished. His family held a memorial Mass at St. John’s Church in Riverhead 18 days after the attack, when Tom was still unaccounted for and presumed dead.

In the days following Sept. 11, Mr. Kelly recalls people reaching out to help the fire departments.

“Random acts of kindness,” he said.

Tom was one of two firefighters from the Reeves Park community in Baiting Hollow who died on Sept. 11. Jonathan Ielpi, whose family owned a home in Reeves Park, also died that day. Mr. Ielpi, who had been living in Great Neck at the time, was with Squad 288 in North Queens. Eight firefighters from Squad 288 died that day. Mr. Ielpi, who also volunteered as a firefighter in Great Neck, was 29 when he died.

Both men came from firefighting families. Tom’s father, Emmett, served for 34 years as a city fireman and Mr. Ielpi’s father, Lee, was retired from the FDNY and was a former president of the September 11th Families’ Association, which founded the World Trade Center Visitors Center near ground zero in 2006.

The Sound Park Heights Civic Association, which represents Reeves Park, will once again honor both firefighters at its Sept. 11 memorial service Saturday.

Mr. Kelly said people will meet by Marine Street at about 6 p.m. and march south to the memorial park at the northeast corner of Park Road and Sound Avenue for a brief service. Park Road is also now known as Thomas Kelly Memorial Drive. 

The fact that this is the 20th anniversary should bring more attention to the day, Mr. Kelly said, although he said it has been well attended every year. 

The 4-acre memorial park was originally slated for development, but the community came together and urged Suffolk County to purchase the site for a 9/11 memorial, which was completed in 2013.

Family members over the years have spoken of the importance of keeping the memory of both men alive.

“It’s important to continue to tell their stories, to tell their jokes, so that their memory may never fade, so that they may live on in all of us for the next generation,” said Steven Kelly, Tom’s nephew, in 2018.

He had described his uncle as a role model who taught him how to scuba dive and about sharks. Tom would volunteer as a shark tank diver at the Riverhead aquarium. And Tom shared with his nephew a passion for baseball and rooting for the New York Mets.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, friends remembered Tom as an outgoing and unselfish man. He had been featured in the News-Review one year earlier for a Boston-to-New York bike trip he participated in to raise money for AIDS research.

Bob Kelly addresses the group assembled on Sept. 11, 2020 to remember the lives lost on 9/11. (Credit: Tim Gannon)