BELTON — The majority of the audience who heard retired Lt. Joe Torrillo with the New York Fire Department speak Wednesday about the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, were too young to remember the event.
It’s the older generations who discuss each September 11 where they were when they learned of the attacks that took place in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
Torrillo talked to a packed house in Walton Chapel at the University of Mary Hardin Baylor.
Khalioah Hamilton, a UMHB junior, was too young to pay any attention as the events unfolded that day.
“I enjoyed the speech, I’d never met anyone who had experienced the attacks,” Hamilton said. “It was kind of interesting.”
Torrillo, an Italian-American from Brooklyn, became a firefighter almost as a lark. He said friends were taking the test and they had an extra application. He decided he’d take the test, which he passed — his friends did not.
His original goal was to go into the construction industry.
Of the hundreds of fire stations he could be assigned to, Torrillo ended up with Engine Company No. 10, across from the World Trade Center towers.
Torrillo worked at that fire house as a firefighter for 16 years.
In 1996, he took the lieutenant test and passed, but he was in an emotionally dark place. Torrillo had started a business and it failed. Prior to New Year’s, Torrillo said he was desperate and he prayed.
An alarm came in on a building on fire with an occupant.
Torrillo’s job was to get inside with hoses and fight the fire. A team was sent up to the roof to open holes in the roof so gasses, heat, fire and smoke could clear.
A lot of houses in New York City have a large skylight that lets in light during the day.
As the skylight was being punched out from above, Torrillo was making his way up the stairs. The falling glass almost cut his thumb off and cut through one of the hoses.
“Now we were in trouble and a May Day alert was sent out,” he said.
Other companies showed up to help with the fire.
The 80-something occupant was two doors down enjoying tea with a friend.
Torrillo was rushed to a hospital where microsurgery was performed on what looked to be a career-ending injury.
He was offered an office job at headquarters until he was healed. Torrillo said he felt unqualified for the role.
Besides being a firefighter, Torrillo considered himself a tradesman, so he was a little concerned about office duties.
He was sent to the office of fire safety and education, where many injured firefighters end up. These firefighters visited schools and made presentations on fire safety. Torrillo eventually ended up in the classroom and excelled, so much so he ended up in charge of the program.
Annual fire fatalities dropped from an average of 400 a year to 50 and Torrillo opened up a fire safety learning center, the Fire Zone, which was a huge success.
Torrillo was contacted by Fisher-Price about developing a New York firefighter toy to be added to the Rescue Heroes action figure line. For each action figure sold, the department would receive $1.
In January 2001, the department saw a prototype of Billy Blazes. Changes made included the color of the uniform and the addition of a mustache.
In July, Fisher-Price wanted to set up an unveiling of Billy. After some negotiations, the date was set for Sept. 11, because 911 is the emergency phone number in NewYork.
That Tuesday morning Torrillo was on this way to the Fire Zone when the first plane struck the South Tower.
He headed to his old Firehouse No. 10 and put on borrowed firefighting clothing. As Torrillo arrived at the South Tower the second jet flew over his head.
Torrillo has an engineering background and he knew the towers would eventually collapse. He said he chased out the people in the lobby who were setting up a triage area. Less than an hour later the tower came down.
The collapsing tower took down the hotel where Torrillo was.
“I was buried with all of these people and we couldn’t see each other,” he said.
Torrillo remembered he had taken an oath when he became a firefighter that he would lay down his life so someone else could live.
“I kept on thinking that I never thought that I would live up to this vow,” he said. “I thought about my career choice and I thought about my kids. I thought about my sisters and brothers.”
Those in search and rescue found a void and discovered Torrillo and three others.
He had severe injuries and was taken to a boat on the Hudson River that could get him to a hospital. While on the boat, the second tower collapsed and Torrillo was covered up again. He eventually made it to a New Jersey hospital and was misidentified for three days. He had borrowed firefighting clothing at Firehouse No. 10, and was assumed to be the person whose name was found in the bunker gear.
Torrillo believes his life was spared so he could tell the stories of the 344 firefighters who died trying to rescue civilians on Sept. 11, 2001.
Fisher-Price called Torrillo a few months ago to let him know they were bringing back the Rescue Hero line.
His parting words to the students was for them chase their dreams and stay the course.