BELTON—Joe Torrillo, a New York City fireman who survived being buried twice beneath rubble of the World Trade Center Twin Towers during 9/11, led chapel services at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor on the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Torrillo served 15 years in Engine Company No. 10, located across the street from the South Tower of the World Trade Center, but that was not where he was supposed to serve Sept. 11, 2001.
Instead, he had been working for more than half a decade in the New York City Fire Department’s office of fire safety education, developing education programs to help children know how to avoid and survive fires.
He was on his way to a scheduled press conference unveiling a new FDNY-themed action figure when he learned that a plane had flown into the North Tower.
Torrillo was just a block away from the tower, so he called off the press event and proceeded to his old firehouse, where he donned borrowed gear and headed to the scene.
Within minutes of his arrival, the second jet passed over his head and collided with the South Tower.
His education in engineering led him to a devastating realization.
“I’m thinking that we’ll never be able to get to the people trapped above the fire,” Torrillo remembered. “And my next assessment was that the building was going to collapse, but nobody would believe me.”
Based on this understanding, Torrillo ordered all the ambulance crews, who were establishing triage spaces in the buildings’ lobbies, to move to a distance six blocks away. This decision likely led to many lives saved.
Buried beneath beams and concrete
As the North Tower fell, Torrillo found himself buried under steel beams and concrete. He suffered a fractured skull and broken ribs. His spine had been crushed and one of his arms broken. He was also suffering from massive internal bleeding.
“I was buried with all these people in this darkness, and all around me I could hear people screaming,” Torrillo said. “I could hear the people, but we couldn’t see each other, and, after a while, those screams turned into cries, cries into whimpers, and whimpers into silence. One by one, they had all died.
“I was in the middle of all these fires. I actually prayed that I would suffocate before I burned to death.”
Torrillo was discovered and rescued from the rubble. He was strapped to a stretcher and loaded onto a boat on the Hudson River. The plan was to evacuate the vessel to a hospital, but before it could leave, the second tower fell. Torrillo was once again buried alive.
Almost an hour later, Torrillo was again rescued. He was transported via the waterway to a hospital in New Jersey. Because he was wearing borrowed gear, Torrillo initially was misidentified, and he was declared missing for three days.
While Torrillo still feels the pain of the injuries he sustained from the attack, he credits his faith with delivering him.
“At some point in your life, when you think you have nothing, you’re wrong,” Torrillo said. “You have to have faith and hope in this world.”