All in a Day's Work

  COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- The word hero and all its derivations are sure to be used liberally when thousands gather at the Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Colorado Springs to honor 425 union firefighters who died in the line of duty...


 

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- The word hero and all its derivations are sure to be used liberally when thousands gather at the Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Colorado Springs to honor 425 union firefighters who died in the line of duty.

Saturday, in the southwest corner of Memorial Park, in reference to the firefighters whose names will be etched onto the marble wall, the words hero and heroism will be appropriate, firefighters say.

The names of 343 New York City firefighters who died in the World Trade Center collapse make up the bulk of those being added to the memorial this year. The 82 others come from across the United States and Canada. They include people such as Linda Hernandez of Miami, who died Sept. 18, 2001, two-and-a-half years after being overcome by noxious smoke while fighting a fire on a roof.

On a day dedicated to those who have died, it's unlikely a lot of attention will be focused on the living, the men and women still on the line.

That's OK with firefighters numbed by the attention they are receiving after Sept. 11.

In the year since the terrorist attacks, the appearance of FDNY hats and T-shirts can be seen almost everywhere, even thousands of miles from the Big Apple.

Firefighters across the country, including those in Colorado Springs, have heard themselves called heroes, in the media or by the people they serve.

It's not a title they wear comfortably. It's not a description they think fits.

Firefighters are, mainly working stiffs, a down-to-earth, modest lot. Many think the words hero and heroism should be restricted to those whose names are etched on the wall in Memorial Park.

Recent interviews with a dozen firefighters reveal a common theme: Maybe it's time to hone the word hero to its core so its meaning isn't diluted, the special honor it signifies isn't diminished and popular culture doesn't render it meaningless through overuse.

Lee Ielpi Jr. says he knows who a hero is -- and who isn't. His son is a hero. He isn't.

Ielpi, a retired New York City firefighter with 26 years on the job, donned his old "turnout gear" after Sept. 11 to help search the World Trade Center debris.

For nine months, he labored in that hellish pile. He heard people who flocked to the edges of the site call him a hero, even when he posed for their family snapshots.

Ielpi said he's no hero. That honor goes to his son, Jonathan Ielpi, a FDNY firefighter who died trying to evacuate people from the towers.

Three months after the collapse, Ielpi carried a stretcher holding his son's body from the wreckage.

"I didn't want anyone to make me out to be a hero," Ielpi said recently. "All I did was go out here and find bodies. Everyone who died that day is a hero. My son and every responding firefighter saw what they were responding to. They were going in with one thought -- to save people."

Kenny Haskell knows the burden of the term hero.

His two brothers, Timmy and Tommy, FDNY firefighters, died when the towers collapsed. Kenny, also a firefighter, was off that day but rushed to the scene. He spent the next two months looking for his brothers' bodies, only one of which was recovered.

The department later sent him and others around the country to talk about that day, in an attempt to repay Americans for their support. He went to Nashville, where tears and hugs and that word, hero, greeted him. It made him squirm.

"I'm not a hero," he said. "I don't go to work to get a pat on the back. I don't feel like a hero. Most guys you talk to are uncomfortable with the term. We're just doing our jobs."

"Just doing our job" is a common refrain among firefighters, whether they're in New York City or Colorado Springs.

They say they're just working stiffs, proud of their jobs and accepting of the risks.

"In light of 9-11, there's not a person on the job who isn't proud of doing what they're doing," said Capt. Randy Royal, medical officer for the Colorado Springs Fire Department. "It's a great job, and it's nice to have the respect of the community. But in most cases, when firefighters are called heroes, they're embarrassed or don't want to hear it. They're doing it because it's their job."

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