Suffocation. Darkness. Chaos.
Lieutenant Joe Torrillo lay under concrete slabs and rubble in the darkness, feeling helpless as he prepared himself for death. Torrillo is one of few survivors of 9/11, having been buried alive by both of the Twin Towers.
Sept. 11, 2001, would be the day that would be marked for centuries to come. The day where lives were lost, sacrificed and taken abruptly. A day that would forever change America.
Torrillo was a lieutenant of 25 years for the New York Fire Department. Most of his career was spent at the Engine Company No. 10, across from the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
Having an extensive knowledge of building structure and structural engineering, especially of the Twin Towers, Torrillo would put his expertise to use when tragedy struck.
That morning, Torrillo was en route to a meeting not far from the World Trade Center. Torrillo had been named the director for a public based program called “The Fire Zone,” intended to educate the public about fire safety and precautions.
A part of the program included the Fisher-Price toy company in creating “Billy Blazes,” an action figure made to resemble heroic firefighters alongside other “Rescue Heroes.” Torrillo said that “Billy Blazes” was actually influenced by his own appearance such as the thick beard. Torrillo called this project his baby, and it would later earn the prestigious Thea Award in 2002.
Recalling the day, Torrillo described it ironic how he had chosen 9/11 for this event because the date 9/11 resembles the emergency number 911. Torrillo would never have had imagined that such an important day would take a sour turn.
En route to the 9 a.m. event, Torrillo’s plans were diverted when American Airlines Flight No. 11 struck into the South Tower unexpectedly.
Without a doubt in mind, Torrillo chose to abandon his meeting and rush to the scene to help. Dressed in formal attire, Torrillo rushed to the nearest fire station to borrow appropriate equipment and attire. In the fast-paced moment of fear and panic, Torrillo disregarded the fact that the uniform he borrowed bore the name of another firefighter, Thomas McNamara.
This small detail would later prove to be of great importance in Torrillo’s survival.
At 9:03 a.m., amidst the panic and mayhem,Torrillo looked up and saw the second plane fly and crash into the South Tower.
“My immediate thought was, everything was going to collapse. I knew the people in there had to get out or else they’d die,” Torrillo said in an interview regarding this moment of terror. Being a part of the rescue missions alongside fellow firemen, Torrillo was able to help save many lives. But later on Torrillo would find himself in need of saving.
At 9:59 a.m., the South Tower fell on everything in its path – civilians, cars, surrounding buildings and Torrillo.
Having predicted the fall of the towers, Torrillo made a hasty judgment to try to find shelter under a bridge. Unfortunately, his attempt at shelter was thwarted when he found himself being pounded by concrete slabs and heavy rubble from the crash.
“I remember laying there, mentally preparing myself for what was to come. I was suffocating in the darkness, only hearing everything happening around me,” said Torrillo.
Torrillo was rescued by a team of emergency personnel who had to hold his head together due to his scalp being split and skull being fractured. Along with his head injuries, Torrillo was also suffering from a snapped arm, broken ribs, a crushed spine and major internal bleeding. The emergency personnel immediately placed Torrillo on a board meant to be boarded upon a boat for the Hudson River.
But doom would find its way back to everyone.
Soon after Torrillo was rescued, the North Tower fell and once again buried Torrillo alive. The debris managed to trap Torrillo alone and in even worse condition.
Forty-five minutes passed. Slipping in and out of conscious, he lay there in agony unable to move. With his last attempt, Torrillo managed to lift his arm in dire hope of getting someone’s attention. Help would come and save the lieutenant, sending him immediately to a trauma center in New Jersey.
Upon arrival in the trauma center, medical personnel identified Torrillo as “Thomas McNamera” as the uniform stated. With the wrong pieces of the puzzle, Torrillo was misidentified and declared missing for three days.
Torrillo brought a humorous tone when saying how crazy it was when people would confront the actual Thomas McNamera, who was in a different city, asking how his injuries were.
After this unfortunate event, “Billy Blazes” would come to represent all the heroic lives risked and lost at 9/11.
Torrillo would later be asked to attend the hearing of the terrorists who orchaestrated the attack at Guantanamo naval base, where he would look into the faces of the men who destroyed the World Trade Center, costing thousands of lives.
Today, Torrillo travels around the world in hopes of inspiring people with his story and messages of hope. He speaks of the horrible things he saw on 9/11 and how it forever changed not only his life, but millions of lives around our world.
Since the attack, Torrillo has undergone countless surgeries and operations from the inflictions caused from being buried alive. He still suffers from these injuries but doesn’t let them hinder his goals. Instead of wanting pity, Torrillo said he uses his story to instill patriotism and hope in others.
During his presentation, Torrillo said “The one thing I regret in my life was not being able to serve my country in the military.” Although he was medically retired from the New York Fire Department shortly after the attack, Torrillo tries his best to support and inspire those who serve our country.
When speaking at LPC’s 9/11 memorial event, Torrillo emphasized the importance of perseverance and working hard, especially for students and youths. He held two presentations at the Mertes Center for the Arts at LPC, where he answered questions and took photos with the audience.
Many students and members of the community, such as local firemen, attended this event including Pearl Harbor Survivor Michael M. Ganitch and his wife Barbara Ganitch. Ganitch elaborated on Torrillo’s message and the importance of patriotism. He said, “After the attack of Pearl Harbor, we saw our country become unified and stronger. 9/11 was the same thing – our country was stronger after.”
Torrillo also spoke at last year’s 9/11 memorial event, hosted by LPC’s Veterans First Program. He was invited back because of the strong response to his presentation not only from LPC students but also from the surrounding community.
Students who attended this year’s presentation responded to Torrillo’s story of survival and ambition. Jace Misfeldt, a current LPC student who finished the EMT program in the spring, said, “I liked the message he was giving the students (when saying) ‘When you are stuck in a hole, keep your head up, and eventually you will figure a way out. Anything is possible.’”
Torrillo said his underlying message for college students was one of perseverence. “Work hard and care about your life,” Torrillo said. “Many people nowadays don’t care about the future or their outcomes, but work hard towards your goals, whether it be in school, your job – whatever it may be.”