Hero NY Firefighter tells his 9/11 story

Published 4:41 pm Wednesday, March 22, 2017

BEAUMONT — Lt. Joe Torrillo, a retired New York City firefighter, had both the north and south towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan collapse on him. But, he lived to tell his tale and to honor those who died on 9/11.

Torrillo was at the Julie Rogers Theater in Beaumont on Tuesday night as the guest speaker for Duty Calls: Honoring Our First Responders, sponsored by Strength for Service. He now tours the nation to speak on behalf of first responders.

“I was the only person to survive having both buildings collapse on them,” he said. “I was declared dead for three days. Everyone asks me why I stayed alive.”

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He then began his account of when he first became a firefighter.

Torrillo said he never intended to be become a firefighter. He wanted to be a police officer instead.

However, he received a letter in the mail asking if he wanted to be appointed as a New York City firefighter.

He spoke with his police recruiter who told him to take the job with the fire department because it was a better job. Out of 70,000 applicants taking the entrance exam, Torrillo was one of only 1,000 who passed.

He was sworn in as a firefighter in 1981.

Ironically, his first station was Engine Company #10, across from the WTC. He spent 15 years there and left in 1996.

Afterward he was injured at a fire in his native Brooklyn. He almost lost his arm and severely injured his thumb that ended his career as a firefighter. He was then transferred to a desk job.

His next post was the Fire Safety Learning Center in Manhattan to teach children fire safety. He confessed he wasn’t excited about the new job at first, but he decided to make the best out of the situation as first responders do.

One thing he felt held him back was, he didn’t have a background in education. Eventually, he overcame that and he was named director of the program.

“You never know where life will take you. You don’t always get what you wish for, but you get what you work for,” he said.

Something else new for Torrillo was on the horizon when he received a call from the Fisher-Price company in Jan. 2001.

They told him they were producing a line of rescue action figures and they wanted to design a new one for the NYFD. Torrillo would be paid $1 for every action figure sold. Torrillo used all of the money earned for the education foundation.

The new action figure would be called Billy Blazes. It would take six months to make the mold and the firefighter would have a bushy moustache, like Torrillo’s.

The action figure was to be unveiled on 9/11 because the numbers were the same as the emergency phone number and safety oriented. But, on his way to meet with Fisher-Price at 9 a.m., something happened.

From his vantage point Torrillo saw a plane hit the south WTC tower at 8:45 a.m. He set off for his old station, Fire Engine #10 to help out. He took off his dress uniform and borrowed Firefighter Tommy McNamara’s bunker gear who was off that day.

He was under the second jet when it hit the north tower later that morning.

He added that he knew the buildings would collapse because he attended the Structural School of Engineering. However, he thought they would collapse much later in the day instead of as quickly as they did.

In addition to knowing the buildings would collapse, he knew it was a terrorist attack and those in the offices above the fire could not be rescued and would die.

He entered the south tower to evacuate people, but the building started to collapse. He tried to make it to the footbridge for coverage, but a rush of wind pushed him back due to the collapse.

A piece of steel hit him in the back of the head and also hit by huge slabs of concrete. He immediately thought he had 10 seconds left to live and his body would never be found.

He heard others around him die, but somehow he stayed alive.

He was thinking why did he make the decision to become a first responder since the decision would end his life. He also thought who would be his children’s new father to take them to Disneyworld.

Fortunately, Torrillo and four others were found buried alive. He had a fractured skull, broken ribs, a broken arm, crushed spine and heavy internal bleeding.

He was attached to a long spine board and evacuated to a boat on the Hudson River for evacuation. Just as he was boarding the boat debris from the north tower began to fall on him.

He somehow freed himself from the spine board and jumped into the engine room for coverage.

Nearly an hour later he was rescued again and taken to the Jersey City Trauma Center in New Jersey.

Because he was wearing McNamara’s uniform, he was misidentified and declared missing for three days.

Three hundred forty-three firefighters lost their lives that day.

Torrillo told the audience Superman, Spiderman, or any other superhero isn’t real. The only hero to come to life was Billy Blazes who represented the firefighters.

As a hero, Torrillo would meet dignitaries in New York City and he even appeared on the cover of “People” magazine with Donald Trump.

He decided to tour the country and tell people he is proud to be an American and how God spared his life for a good reason — to tell the story of those first responders who died that day.

“Being a first responder is a career most others couldn’t do. It’s the vow where there is no divorce,” he said.

He added that it’s a vow where one may have to lay down their lives.

Torrillo said not to forget the family members of first responders because they also make a huge commitment.

He told the first responders present to give indigent people the respect and honor they deserve.

“Don’t judge anyone,” he said.

Also, he urged first responders to be role models on and off the job because first responders are held to a higher standard.

Lastly, train as much and as hard as possible and focus on the basics.

“Never give up on life,” Torrillo said.

David Ball: 409-721-2427