First-person stories form heart of tours around the W.T.C.


By Skye H. McFarlane

Dina LaFond never thought she would return to the World Trade Center site. It was the spot, after all, where her youngest daughter, Marsh & McClennan account analyst Jeanette LaFond-Menichino, perished on Sept. 11, 2001. For four years Dina stayed away, grieving for her daughter and then for her husband, who died nine months later. She grieved again when the authorities identified Jeanette’s partial remains. Because the search for remains is ongoing, Dina still hasn’t buried her daughter.

But now Dina returns to the site three times a month to tell visitors the story of the World Trade Center and its people, including Jeanette — who loved working above the clouds on the 94th floor of the North Tower, Dina says. The bright-eyed 82-year-old, who still works three days a week at a Madison Avenue firm, is one of 156 volunteer guides in the Tribute W.T.C. Center’s walking tour program. She joined the program a year ago after hearing about it from her older daughter, Anita.

“If I stay home and cry, there’s no one there to dry my tears. I might as well go out and do something,” Dina said of her work as a guide, which has enabled her to meet tourists and reporters from around the world. “It’s such a beautiful thing to just keep on going and talking. It’s really very inspiring.”

Each of the Tribute Center’s guides has a personal connection to the events of 9/11 and many, like Dina, say that sharing their personal stories has helped them work through the tragedy and trauma. Others use the tours to educate, to advocate tolerance and vigilance, and to keep the memory of lost loved ones alive. Visitors say that the personal stories they hear on the tours help them to better understand the human impact of 9/11.

“I have said it before and I’ll say it again a hundred times: If we don’t educate people about what hatred and intolerance did on that day, then history is doomed to repeat itself,” said Lee Ielpi, co-founder and vice president of the Tribute Center.

Ielpi, a retired firefighter, lost his firefighter son, Jonathan, in the 9/11 attacks. Ielpi began giving tours on his own in early 2002 after watching tourists wander around the site aimlessly, not knowing what to make of the mass of rubble and missing person flyers. When September 11th Families’ Association staffer Jennifer Adams pitched the idea of creating a non-profit 9/11 visitors’ center, she and Ielpi agreed that guided tours would be a part of the package. The Tribute Center officially opened on Sept. 18, 2006, but the center’s first trained guides began giving tours in October of 2005.

The center’s motto is “Person to Person History” and every exhibit in the intimate space at 120 Liberty St. tells the story of 9/11 in the first person, using audio, video, photos and quotations from family members and first responders. The center encourages its visitors to talk back, asking them to fill out an index card answering the question, “How have you been changed by the events of September 11th, or what actions can you take in the spirit of Tribute to help or educate another?” Though the center’s artifacts sit behind ropes or glass, Ielpi likes to point out how the paint on a twisted steel beam has been worn off by the touch of hundreds of hands. There are no sensors or alarms to stop them. There are, however, plenty of Kleenex available. Even Ilepi, a tough, old-school sort of guy who bears a striking resemblance to former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, still tears up at certain exhibits — particularly the case that holds Jonathan Ielpi’s tattered uniform.

The tours can be similarly tear-jerking. Tour guides must undergo a lengthy formal training process that teaches them how to incorporate their personal stories into the template of a five-point tour. With family members, recovery workers, survivors and community residents all participating in the program, the stories can vary wildly. Whether the tale involves fighting government officials to return to an apartment filled knee-deep with debris or waking up burned in a hospital as an unidentified Jane Doe, the effect on the audience is generally the same — a reverent silence and welling eyes.

The tour begins outside the W.T.C. site on Liberty St. with a brief history of the Twin Towers. The tourists — 35 percent of whom hail from outside the United States — look up at the rebuilt 52-story 7 W.T.C. and try to imagine a pair of buildings more than twice as tall. Then the tour moves across the street to the World Financial Center, where the guides, who work in pairs, share their stories.

On Monday morning, retired firefighter Paul McFadden described coming home from a round of golf on 9/11 to find his wife waiting at the door with his helmet, telling him that something horrible had happened and that he needed to get down to the World Trade Center. He described leaving the site near sunrise the next day because his eyes were bleeding from the smoke and dust.

“You started to walk around like a zombie,” he said. “If I close my eyes, I see a lot of papers flying…swirling, twisting all over the place.”

His wife, Denise, the “support” guide for the 11 a.m. tour, described 15 months of attending near-daily funerals for firefighters, some of whom had two services — one as a memorial and then a second after remains were found. At one point, she said, she felt so guilty that her husband was still alive that she asked Paul not to hold her hand as they walked out of a service. It is a painful memory, but she says she feels a duty to share it.

“How could you not?” she said. “We could not save our friends, but we can save their memories.”

On the 3 p.m. tour, Rosemary Cain’s voice cracked as she recalled turning on the television on 9/11 to see a ticker running across the screen: “100s of firefighters trapped.” Her son, George, never made it out. Cain, whose support guide Monday was Dina LaFond, said she gives tours so that people will remember George. She also hopes her audience will be inspired to protect their fellow human beings. To prevent burnout, she gives just two or three tours a month.

“I want to always be passionate,” Cain said. “I never want to sound like a broken record.”

That passion can be a double-edged sword for the tour program. While the Tribute Center stresses that personal connection is the heart of the tour, guides must be trained to temper their often-vehement personal views about controversial W.T.C. issues. Nevertheless, some of these opinions inevitably bubble to the surface: Cain told tourists about the “nightmare” of learning that human remains had been discovered on the Deutsche Bank building and in nearby manholes; Paul McFadden made sure that visitors knew about the illnesses caused by W.T.C. dust; and Ielpi told the Downtown Express of his desire for the official memorial to list victims’ names as the Tribute Center does (alphabetically by company or responder unit, with ages included).

As for what will happen to the Tribute Center once the memorial opens in 2009, Ielpi, a member of the Memorial Foundation’s board, said it’s too soon to tell. The center has been talking to the foundation about the possibility of merging the visitors’ center, the tours, or both into the memorial. In the meantime, the Tribute Center has already surpassed 100,000 visitors, more than 20,000 of whom have taken a walking tour. All three 15-person tours on Monday were sold out, despite near-freezing temperatures, and the center hopes to add more tour slots this spring. In addition to more tours, which cost $10 and can be booked online at www.tributenyc.org, the center has begun hosting a public speaker series. Ielpi also hopes to create a traveling tour guide program that would give presentations at schools and community centers.

Because of the expansion, Tribute is actively seeking new volunteers to be tour guides, people greeters and visitors’ center docents. In particular, the center is looking to add more community residents and office workers to its corps, which is made up heavily of first responders and relatives of 9/11 victims. Rachael Grygorcewitz, the center’s volunteer coordinator, said she hopes to have 300 trained volunteers by next winter.

At the end of each 75-minute tour, guides leave their charges in the American Express lobby, where a small black pool entitled “11 Tears” memorializes the Amex employees killed on 9/11. On Monday afternoon, British tourist Brian Shepherd lingered there with his wife, Donna, and their two sons. Shepherd said he would share the stories of George Cain and Jeanette LaFond with his friends back in the U.K.

“This really brought it home to us,” he said. “You see the pictures and the flyers on television, but speaking to someone like her [Rosemary Cain] you get to really know what that picture means to a person.”