(Above) Retired FDNY Lt. Joe Torrillo shared his Sept. 11, 2001 story in the shadow of a piece of steel pulled from the World Trade Center towers and brought to Clear Lake.
by Marianne Gasaway
Joe Torrillo is a man on a mission.
Since 2010, Torrillo has been traveling the country with a goal of “Re-Uniting the States of America.” On Saturday, Sept. 11, the retired lieutenant of the Fire Department of New York shared his story of being trapped twice in the rubble of the World Trade Center 20 years ago. In the process, he pleaded with hundreds gathered at the Clear Lake Fire Station to always remember the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and keep the memory alive of all those who died and gave their lives in the massive rescue effort.
“My biggest fear is this is going to become the next Pearl Harbor. This Dec. 7th, I guarantee you the newspapers won’t say a word about Pearl Harbor. I’m afraid that one day that’s what’s going to happen with 9/11. Everybody like me will have passed on, and the younger generation might not feel that obligation to keep it alive. That’s why I feel so strongly, every year we do have to have ceremonies so we expose the younger kids to what we’re doing, and then hopefully they’ll feel motivated and inspired to keep on doing this for us.”
Torrillo’s rise in the ranks of the FDNY was unexpected— even to him, he joked. He was convinced to take the firefighter exam by friends. He planned to get appointed and then resign, just to say he did it.
“I got in and my friends didn’t. It was not what I intended to be doing, but hey, I liked the schedule and so I did it. It was the best decision I ever made.”
At the age of 25, Torrillo became a firefighter. An injury in 1996 forced him to be reassigned to an office duty job. Specifically, he became part of a new fire education program known as “The Fire Zone.” With no experience in education, Torrillo said he didn’t think he would be very good at the job, but it turned out he was. In fact, he became the director of the program and even won a Themed Entertainment Award at the 2002 Emmys.
That was when toymaker Fisher Price took notice. They contacted him about creating a new firefighter action hero, Billy Blazes. That was the toy that has had a lasting impact on his life.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 Torrillo was driving to a press conference about the release of Billy Blazes when he heard about a plane crashing into the north tower at the World Trade Center. When he realized it was no accident, he made his way to the fire station where he started his career, Engine Company #10.
“I hadn’t been in that fire house in five years and when I got there both engines had already responded. People were coming into the station to find a place of safety,” he said. He quickly reached for Tommy McNamara’s gear, since Tommy wasn’t working that shift and began running to the north tower. As he was making his way the south tower was hit at 9:03 a.m.
Torrillo said he had always wanted to be an architect or building engineer and had studied the trade. He knew the impact of the planes would cause the building to collapse. “I made a life in fire service when I wanted to be a construction engineer. Education is never wasted. All the knowledge came back to me,” he said.
“Nobody believed me at first, but I kept telling everybody these buildings are going to collapse. I knew we couldn’t get to people above the crash and people couldn’t get out. This was going to be the biggest evacuation/paramedic event.”
Torrillo was under the south tower when the building started coming down. He described air pressure forcing him forward and knocking him from his feet. Debris and steel came raining down on him, splitting the back of his head open, breaking his arm, and causing neck and spine injuries.
“It was suffocating. I was buried with all these people. I could hear them, but I couldn’t see them. I said a prayer and accepted my fate.”
Torrillo and others were eventually rescued and he was placed on a back board and taken to a boat on the Hudson River. In a cruel twist of fate, he was buried for a second time while lying on the deck of the boat,
“Glass came raining down when more of the towers came down and people were jumping off the boat. I was on a spine board.” Miraculously he located the button to release his restraints and was able to find a spot to take cover. He waited in darkness until someone came to start the boat and found him. Torrillo was transported across the river to New Jersey and taken by ambulance for emergency surgery. He was admitted under the name, Tommy McNamara. Eventually his real identity was discovered and he was reunited with his family.
Torrillo was forced to retire in 2004 due to a brain injury. He admits the absence of his career made him unhappy. That’s when he decided to spend the rest of his life making the country the ‘Reunited States of America.’
“We had a huge resurrection of patriotism right after 9-11, but it started dying.
He hopes his story will act as a message to everyone that no matter where you find yourself in life, there is always a way to achieve new goals.