A Common Bond: FDNY Fathers and Sons

Ten years after the September 11 attacks, firefighters across the country are engaged in memorials and ceremonies that honor the 343 and the other victims. For the fire service, such remembrances are a critical part of our promise to “never forget.”

But the 10-year anniversary also presents a unique opportunity to look not only at what September 11 meant then, but also what it means now. A generation of FDNY firefighters and officers has come up since that fateful day, filling the void left when so many were taken at the height of their careers. However, we still have a personal connection to the event; our ranks still include many who served during 9/11. In a way, the 10-year anniversary is a bridge between these two generations.

In late June, I traveled to the New York City offices of the Tribute WTC Visitor Center to meet with people on both sides of that bridge–current and former FDNY firefighters whose fathers or sons were killed on 9/11. Together, these two groups help us remember the individuals lost on that day. But they also help us look toward the future–to how this singular event continues to change the fire service, and ultimately, to the hope and the promise of a new generation of firefighters and officers.

Following are excerpts from those interviews. To view a video of these interviews, available in late August, visit FirefighterNation.com and our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/firefighternation).
–Tim Sendelbach, editor-in-chief, FireRescue magazine

THE FATHERS
Lee Ielpi retired from FDNY Rescue 2 in 1996 after 26 years. His son, Jonathan, was a firefighter with Squad 288 when he was killed on 9/11. Lee subsequently came out of retirement, first to work at the WTC site, and then to start the September 11 Families Association and the Tribute WTC Visitor Center.

Dennis O’Berg was an FDNY lieutenant on 9/11, but retired that day, after finding Ladder 105, the rig that his son, Dennis Patrick, worked on. Dennis subsequently devoted his time to working at the WTC site.

George Reilly was a retired FDNY lieutenant on September 11. His son, Kevin, was a firefighter with Engine 207 on the day of the attacks, but his regular assignment was his father’s company–Ladder 40.

John Vigiano is a former Marine and retired FDNY captain, and one of the most decorated FDNY firefighters in history. John lost two sons on 9/11–NYPD Detective Joseph Vigiano and FDNY Firefighter John Vigiano II, with Ladder 132.

Note: We also spoke with retired FDNY captain Bill Butler, whose son Thomas was killed on 9/11, couldn’t be present at the interviews. We caught up with him later by phone. Read the interview here.


Tim Sendelbach: You’re all part of the “Band of Dads” that formed after 9/11. Tell me how that started.

Lee Ielpi: We came here for many reasons–we came here to help, we knew our sons were working–and then it became a mission [to find our sons]. There were many dads at the site, not just the “Band of Dads”; there were dads looking for sons and sons looking for dads, nephews, uncles and so forth. But there was a small group of us, six or eight of us, that just stayed together.

John Vigiano: Lee and I worked together for 12 years. We were at a point where we didn’t even speak until after the fires; it was just a nod of the head, blink of the eye, click on the radio and we knew where everyone was going. Our area was Brooklyn, so we ran into a lot of fires with Dennis and his unit. George we knew from Harlem. That was the thing that brought us together. And it turned out over a period of two or three months, we all were there, every day. There were others who came and went, but this core was there every day. I don’t know who coined the phrase, “Band of Dads,” but it’s true. And to this day we find comfort in just being with each other, because we lived through the same pain.

Sendelbach: Among you, there’s a tremendous amount of experience at various levels within the FDNY. Looking at the department today, how has it changed?

Dennis O’Berg: It’s probably become safer. [They’ve] changed protocols for responses to anything from bomb scares to regular emergencies, car fires even, like that one in Times Square. So everyone’s aware of the threat now of another 9/11 or even [an incident] on a smaller scare. I believe the officers and the upper echelon have stepped back and they’re looking at things from a different perspective than they did on 9/11, and pre-9/11.

Vigiano: The equipment they have today is like Star Wars compared to what we started with. The rescue companies, squads, Special Operations–they have tools that I just think, “Wow, I have no idea how that works.” But these kids are being trained for hours a day, not one-hour-a-day drills. They’ve come a long way, and the bosses realize that, and the city realizes that. They’re finally putting money where it has to be.

Lelpi: 9/11 was really a turning point for many departments worldwide. But I’m confident that if there’s another job similar to 9/11, whether it’s a manmade disaster or natural disaster, these firefighters are going to do the exact same thing. They have better training, they have better gear, but a fire is a fire, and there’s only one mission in the fire service, and that’s to help the people. They know where they have to go.

Sendelbach: When we became firefighters, each and every one of us raised our right hand and took that oath to be firefighters, to put our lives on the line. Each of you lost your sons–a huge sacrifice. Is that too much to ask of a firefighter?

George Reilly: I think it’s a terrible sacrifice to ask. But when we go on this job, we know what we’re getting into, more or less. We know it could happen. But you don’t think it’s going to happen to you. And I’m sure my son Kevin was the same way.

Vigiano: As a captain, I had the honor and the privilege of [working with] these young men who had just come into the department. One of the things I used to stress is that, when you leave your house, no matter how much grief you and your wife have, no matter how much turmoil you have with your kids, you hug them, kiss them, tell them you love them. Because you don’t know what’s going to happen; you may not go home. John called me the night before the 11th, and Joe called me [while] responding to the World Trade Center. The last words [in both conversations] were, “I love you.”

Lelpi: For me it made it a little easier, knowing that my son died doing what he loved to do. There was nothing more important for my son Jonathan than helping people. It’s the poor folks [the civilians] that didn’t raise their right hands; they just came to work. You have to think about them and how difficult it is for them. But for us, we know what our boys did, what they loved to do.

O’Berg: My wife spoke to my son the previous night. He was only on 7½ months; he was a CPA before that and changed jobs. My wife asked him, “Are you happy with what you’re doing, Dennis?” And he says, “Yeah, I’m very happy.” He was awaiting relief the next day when the box [alarm] came in. In that short period of time [on the job], he loved it. We have pictures of him with a smile on his face while mopping the firehouse kitchen floor. I think about that short time. I wish it was longer, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Sendelbach: Lee, your other son, Brendan, is a firefighter. Do you have any regrets about that?

Lelpi: I’ve been asked that a lot. Brendan went to 157 Truck, which is a really busy truck, and people ask me, “Why would you want to send him to a really busy house after what just happened?” I say, first of all, they have to lead their own lives. He wants to go to a busy house, he wants to learn the job quicker because it’s busier, then I’m going to help him get to the busier house.

When our children were growing up, whether it’s sons or daughters, all they heard was fire, fire, fire, and how we spoke so admirably about the work that we did, and we couldn’t wait to go to work–that’s all they knew. My son Jonathan, his desire was to get to Rescue 2, where I worked. And that was going to happen. Jonathan did not make it, but he was [getting] there. On July 4th, Brendan is going to work his first tour as a new member in Rescue 2.

Reilly: I remember I was in the kitchen with my son Kevin [when] he was going to the academy. I asked him, what truck company would you like to try for? And of course I mentioned every one in Harlem except for the truck that I’d been on. I didn’t think of him going to the house where I’d been 15, 16 years. So I mentioned all these companies, and he says, “Dad, what about 40 Truck? I grew up there.”

Sendelbach: Dennis, your last tour was on September 11. Can you tell me why you made that decision?

O’Berg: I had just a little over 31 years, and like I said before, my son only had 7½ months on. I was working that day; I responded with my company. There were body parts all over. I reported in and got my orders, and we started walking toward the South Tower, going up Liberty Street. All of a sudden–boom–I hear this noise and look up, and saw, out of two corners of the building, the floors blown out and fire blowing out. It was like Backdraft, you know, like the movie. We dove under the back of our truck.

I knew my son was there. As the day went on, we fought a fire in the Presidential on the next block up. When we had the fire out, I just looked out the window and I saw that pile of rubble, and I started trying to call my son and his company, Ladder 105. I tried every channel, nothing, nothing. We went down and ran into some guys and they took me around to his rig.  

It was just the opposite of the way it should have happened. I should have been in that building. Thirty-one years vs. 7½ months, it’s just … I said, that’s it. It’s not supposed to happen that way.

Lelpi: I don’t know if those outside the fire service really understand … Do they realize that there are still 128 firemen still missing? Dennis’ son is still missing, 10 years later. John only found one of his sons, and George’s son is still missing. And civilians–today, 1,122 people are still unaccounted for.

Sendelbach: It goes against the grain of everything a firefighter stands for. We don’t leave anybody behind. To think, 10 years later, 128 still missing …

Lelpi: Quick story: [After the collapse], the families of 288 Squad were called in, so [my family went] to the firehouse [with my grandson], Andrew, who was 10 years old at the time. He knows his daddy is missing, but he doesn’t know [he’s] dead. And I can still remember so vividly, one of the firemen saying [to all the families], “I want you people to know, I want all of you to know, we’re going to find your loved ones. We’re going to bring them home.” Well, we knew what that meant–they’re going to go back to the site and look for their bodies. But my grandson turns to me and says, “If that man doesn’t bring my daddy home, I’m going to punch him in the face.”

Do you see what I’m saying? It wasn’t like a counselor who would have said different words. This was so raw. How do you handle it? How do you handle this number of 343?

Reilly: Aside from the grief all the families have, [you have to think about] the men and women in the firehouse. My son was working [someone else’s shift] that evening. [Later], when the company came over to the house, this young fellow [was there and told me that]. I said, “That’s all right, it’s part of the job. I know it’s going to bother you, but it’s part of the job.” [Another firefighter] probably stayed in the company another year, but because they had to deal with all the families, the memorials, it took a toll on him. He transferred to Staten Island.

Sendelbach: What did May 1 [when Osama bin Laden was killed] do for you? Is there any degree of comfort or peace brought by that?

Vigiano: When an IED occurs, the soldier, sailor, is usually blown unconscious. So he thinks he’s dead. He wakes up either on a stretcher in a helicopter or in a field hospital, in Germany or in Walter Reed. And they tell him, This is your “alive day.” Well, May 1 is my alive day. Up to that point, life meant nothing. That’s the only satisfaction I have.

Lelpi: I knew we were going to get him. Ten years later was a long time, but I knew we were going to get him. And my first reaction, my very, very first reaction, is I cried. And I don’t know where that came from. I cried. And I looked up and I said, They got him.
I hope it brings some comfort knowing that the number one has been killed. And I was so pleased it was done by our military, our men and women in uniform. There’s a lot of soldiers out there from other countries supporting this, but our intelligence did it, our people in uniform supported the SEAL Team 6, and there aren’t enough words to say thank you.

Reilly: I was in the service at one time, and I think [the military] has done a superb job over the last 10 years. They’ve kept us safe, they’ve kept the war over there, not here. And as far as closure, when they win this war–and they will, but I don’t think I’ll be around to see it–when they win the war on terrorism, then there will be satisfaction. There was some satisfaction when bin Laden was killed, but that will be the ultimate satisfaction. Then they can come home.

Note: We also spoke with retired FDNY captain Bill Butler, whose son Thomas was killed on 9/11, couldn’t be present at the interviews. We caught up with him later by phone. Read the interview here.

 

THE SONS
Joe Downey, an FDNY battalion chief, who at the time of the attacks was captain of Squad 18. His father, Ray Downey–a legend in the FDNY–was a deputy chief in charge of all Special Operations on 9/11.

James Dowdell, a firefighter with Ladder 174. James was 17 years old on 9/11. His father, Kevin Dowdell, was a lieutenant with Rescue 4 and a 21-year veteran of the FDNY.

Chris Ganci, a firefighter with Ladder 157 and son of FDNY Fire Chief Peter Ganci, who survived the first tower collapse but not the second. Chris was working in private industry when the WTC attacks happened; he became a firefighter in 2005.

Tim Sendelbach: How do you think the FDNY has changed since 9/11?

Joe Downey: The culture’s still the same. The guys who do this job want to be on the fire department, they want to help people, so that part of it is still the same. We have a lot more training for the guys coming on the job, [especially] terrorism training, and there’s a lot more resources out there available to us. The guys coming on the job now are better trained than they ever have been before.

Chris Ganci: It’s still a family, and that’s what we all grew up with. I think we’re moving forward. We do a lot more hazmat and radiological training. That’s the world that we’re in right now, unfortunately, for a lot of reasons, but I feel confident that we’re up to the job.

Sendelbach: With so many multigenerational families, what role do you think the FDNY culture has played in the recovery process?

Downey: I’ve been on the job for 26 years now, so I was on prior to 9/11, and I saw the vision my father had for Special Operations, and Chief Ganci … what they wanted for the future. I believe that myself and others have stepped up and taken on certain roles that our leaders who were killed had left empty. They set these high standards, and now it’s our job to keep those standards high.

James Dowdell: There are all these stories of the guys who were on before 9/11 who lost their lives. You look back, and you want to make them proud. I think that’s a big task, because what they did on 9/11 was amazing. I mean, these guys died for this job, literally, and you don’t want to embarrass anything that they worked so hard to do. You just have to think about how you can better the job.

Ganci: In terms of the family aspect, I think that’s what a lot of people outside the fire department don’t really understand. It’s like a fabric, and that’s really what prolongs the history and the traditions of the job. So I knew a little bit of what to expect when I came here, I mean, I said I knew.

But the truth is that I feel like there’s a level of expectation that I have to live up to, not only because I’m Pete Ganci’s kid, but also because I’m a firefighter in the Fire Department of New York. I thought I’d done a lot in my life, and I realized when I joined the fire department that I hadn’t done anything at all. These guys are legends, giants, and to live up to their expectations, their reputations, is difficult, but it’s something to strive for every single day.

I just want to be the best fireman I can be, and to be a good example to the community. A good role model sometimes is important to people. I think that’s the simple model that my father was always drilling into me as a kid: Do the right thing.

Sendelbach: You said it, these guys set the bar extremely high. How do you choose to remember your fathers?

Dowdell: I’ll run into people on the job who ask, Are you Lieutenant Dowdell’s son? And it’s weird, because I don’t remember him as Lieutenant Dowdell, I remember him as Dad. I don’t remember him in the firehouse; I remember him at my high school rugby games, or going surfing with him. I remember him as a great father, a great example. [On 9/11] I had just turned 17. You know, 17 years with a father is a decent amount of time, it’s not as much time as you hoped for, but we had 17 great years with my father, and so I try to remember the lessons that he taught me and try to carry on his legacy.

Downey: I follow my dad’s footsteps in a way through the Special Operations part of the job. I don’t try to be him. I don’t think any of us are going to try to be our fathers, because we’ll never be that, and I don’t think they want us to be that. My dad always taught us, be your own person, live your own life.

So I like to remember him by continuing what his vision was, and not just Special Ops; he worked on other programs to better this job. He was very influential in the Bunker Gear Program when we started it years ago. It’s important [for us to understand] that we’re role models, we do carry a name, right down the line, and it’s important to us that people remember that name, because [our fathers] were good people, hardworking firefighters. Hopefully when I leave, we’ll be in a better place than when I got here, better training, better equipment, better prepared for fires and terrorism events.

Sendelbach: Chris, you left a lucrative business career to be a firefighter. Why?

Ganci: I just wasn’t happy with what I was doing. My brother was always on the route to become a fireman, and he is. But my father had other plans for me. When I got accepted to Cornell, he was ecstatic, and he was already picking out law schools. After he was killed, I guess my value system changed a lot. I realized I was kind of just going through the motions. A lot of people measure success through financial gains. You’ll never be rich in this job [fire service], but you’ll be rich [inside].

I don’t regret a minute of it. It was the best decision I ever made. The only thing I regret is that I didn’t make the decision earlier so I could have more time on this job.

Sendelbach: In your opinion, how’s the FDNY doing today?

Downey: I think they’re doing great. It took some time to get back on our feet. The guys coming in are highly motivated, dedicated guys. Fires are still going out, the guys are aggressive, because it’s a fantastic job still.

Ganci: I remember hearing something that Bill Feehan used to say. “No matter what goes on, that [firehouse] door goes up, we respond, and that’s the thing that always works. If we don’t screw that up, we’re good.” And that’s the way we look at it. Everyone always says that this generation is different from the last generation and in a lot of respects it is. But the truth is that the personalities that make people want to be firemen, that’s the same. And as long as you got that, I think we’re looking good going forward.

Sendelbach: What do you want firefighters around the world to take away from 9/11?

Downey: I think it’s about preparedness. Do your training, be prepared, protect yourself. In this day and age you can’t be complacent. Every run you go on could be your last run. You can’t be back in quarters sitting around, there’s got to be training going on, because like Chris said, you want to be the best you can be, and the only way you’re going to do that is to prepare yourself and train yourself.

Dowdell: You want them to remember what happened and realize that it can happen. If you asked me on September 10, Do you think your father could die in a fire tomorrow, I would have said, No way. He’s your father. He’s superhuman to you when you’re young. But if you’re a fireman, you have to know that it’s a reality and you can’t fool yourself or your family. Many times my father talked to me, [he would say] “If something happens to me, you got to take care of Mom, you got to remember to keep doing what you’re doing, stay on the right track.” So it was a surprise when he didn’t come home, obviously, but it wasn’t something I’d never heard before. He spoke to us about that, and it was great that he did that. You know, it’s tough to hear that from your father, that he might not come home one day, but it prepared me for when it happened. If you have a family, it’s not something you want to talk about, but maybe you should.

Ganci: FDNY got bruised that day, but it didn’t break. The spirit of the job has gotten even stronger than it was before. You can do a lot of things to us, but you’re never going to crush the spirit. You can kill a lot of guys and take out rigs and equipment and buildings and people, but what makes the job a job, that’s the thing that’s eternal.

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