Just six weeks before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, attendees of the 43rd
annual Superman Celebration had the opportunity to hear from a real life super hero as retired FDNY Lt. Joe Torrillo shared his story on July 31.
“I get these (speaking) opportunities every single day. I have to pick and choose where I want to be. But, to be here today is probably the best decision I made. It’s humbling to be here on this day of so much symbolism,” Torrillo said. “I have to be honest with you, I didn’t know there was a town called Metropolis. I find it so interesting because when I was a kid, I was so into Superman, I used to think I could fly like him. And today, if I could do anything in the world, I’d like to fly like him, if that could be possible.”
Torrillo spent the first 16 years of his fire career in Engine Company No. 10, across the street from the South Tower of the World Trade Center. When he began his career in 1980, that firehouse was brand new. He was promoted to lieutenant in September 1996 and assigned to another area of New York City.
Shortly after that promotion on New Year’s Eve 1996, he was seriously injured in a Brooklyn fire, his left thumb almost cut off in a rescue effort. He had to take a desk job.
“I was devastated. I was a carpenter by trade. I’d never worked in an office in my life, but I thought I’d make the best of it,” he said.
He was assigned to headquarters wondering, “What am I going to do in headquarters for a whole year? I hope they don’t have me answering telephones. … If you called, and I answered, what would you think?” the Brooklyn native said.
He wasn’t alone. Other firefighters with various injuries had also been assigned to other positions, mainly, going out to the 3,000 schools in New York City to talk to students about preventing and surviving fire.
“I knew nothing about this. I didn’t know this (office of fire safety education) existed,” he said. “I got so good at it, they made me the director of the whole program. It was a life-changing event. Life sometimes takes us down roads we didn’t know were waiting for us. Life sometimes takes us down roads that can change us in so many different ways. That’s why it’s so important to always prepare yourself for other plans. Life is all about having many roads available, but the road you choose might be the road that was meant for you.”
As the director of the department’s public education program, Torrillo decided children needed a center to learn the message of fire survival in a multi-sensory, fun way geared toward them. Then New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani loved the idea and provided a $3 million budget to create the state-of-the-art children’s fire safety learning center Torrillo co-designed. After two years of work, “The Fire Zone” opened in October 2000 in Rockefeller Center, the heart of Manhattan.
“There’s a saying that goes like this: ‘Be careful what you wish for in life, because sometimes we get what we want.’ I had no idea what I was doing, but I took the five most common causes of fire and brought these (safety) messages to life,” Torrillo said.
Torrillo promoted The Fire Zone the next few months, focusing on fire survival and decreasing the number of fires through education.
Three months after opening the center in January 2001, Torrillo got a phone call from Fisher-Price Corporation. “I think you’ve got the wrong number. This is fire department headquarters,” Torrillo responded. “No, we want to speak to Lt. Torrillo,” the caller said. “That’s me. How can I help you?” Torrillo asked.
The Fisher-Price executive told Torrillo about the corporation’s Rescue Heroes action figure line of toys, and they were wanting to add a figure in the likeness of a New York firefighter. “If you help us design it, we’ll give you a dollar for every one sold around the world,” the caller said. Those funds went to Torrillo’s education program, buying smoke detectors to give out to those who listened to his fire safety lecture.
Shortly after, Torrillo and Fisher-Price illustrators met for a day. Torrillo explained what a firefighter looks like with his bunker gear, packs and other equipment while the illustrators drew it out with crayons, markers and pencils. At the end of the day, “Billy Blazes,” was born. The artwork was taken to the factory, and six months later in July 2001, the first “Billy Blazes” prototype was ready. One of the tweaks a Fisher-Price executive made was making “Billy Blazes” look more like Torrillo with a big black mustache. Three weeks later, “Billy Blazes” went into mass production.
The next step was where to introduce this new Rescue Heroes figure in New York City. Torrillo suggested The Fire Zone. For the when, Torrillo suggested October because it’s National Fire Prevention Month. While it was a natural tie-in to the project, it was too close to the holiday season. Torrillo suggested Sept. 11, 2001, because 911 is the emergency phone number in New York City, and making it a 911-theme safety day to teach ways to prevent and survive fires before introducing “Billy Blazes.”
On the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, every New York City reporter was waiting for Torrillo at Rockefeller Center to introduce a new rescue hero.
Prior to the 9 a.m. news conference, Torrillo got to his office around 6 a.m. to catch up on paperwork. Time got away from him, and he had 20 minutes to get across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan. Three college students were to accompany him to the conference. They were in the next room, watching TV and eating breakfast when he told them to get ready. As he was getting his dress uniform and keys, a student ran in and said a plane had just hit the Twin Towers.
American Airlines Flight No. 11 struck the North Tower at 8:46 a.m.
“Smoke was coming out of the North Tower. I asked if it was a simulation or a movie. He said, no, it’s really happening,” Torrillo recalled. “Two blocks away (from headquarters), we were on the bridge going from Brooklyn into Manhattan, and I’m looking over to the left and could see 10 floors of fire all on the top of the North Tower. My first fear was this isn’t a little Piper Cub, it has to be a big commercial jet. A million things are going through my head. At the end of the bridge, I had 15 seconds to make an impromptu decision — right to the press conference or left to the firehouse where I started my career across the street from the World Trade Center?”
Knowing where his friends would be and knowing they would need someone with experience and knowledge of the complex, Torrillo took a left.
In college, Torrillo studied architecture and engineering.
“I was supposed to be a construction superintendent,” he said. “The construction industry is my real passion. Obviously, it changed to being a firefighter so many years later.”
Two of Torrillo’s college professors worked for the concrete contractor on the Twin Towers, and they would take their students on class trips to study the new, novel design of the World Trade Center Twin Towers. During those trips, Torrillo said he and his classmates questioned where the steel was to hold the Towers up. It was explained it was light-weight constructed building.
Torrillo parked in the back of the firehouse. The four ran to the front, where the wide-open doors showed the engines were gone and injured people were lying all over the floor seeking shelter. He told the students to treat them, call ambulances as needed and do not leave.
Torrillo grabbed Lt. Tommy McNamara’s bunker gear — McNamara was off duty that day — and ran out the firehouse. To get to the North Tower, he had to pass the South Tower.
“I heard a roar. The second jet came right over my head (it was 9:03 a.m.) — United Airlines Flight 175 struck the South Tower between the 77th and 85th floors. This huge fireball came right down at me. I turned and made it back into the firehouse as the fireball hit the street and exploded,” Torrillo said. “I would’ve been killed right there. I told the college kids we were under terrorist attack.”
He ran back out, still heading to the North Tower, coming in contact police officers, firelighters, EMTs, paramedics and civilians.
“I kept telling them we were under terrorist attack. ‘We’re the first responders, everyone on the top of the building is going to die — we can’t get to them and they can’t get down. We’re going to evacuate everybody from the point of impact and below. These buildings are going to collapse,’ ” Torrillo said. “Nobody believed me. They all looked at me like I was crazy,”
Torrillo said the memories of those college class trips to the Towers came back him. “I was looking at those Towers and could see through them like Superman with X-ray vision. I’m looking at the steel support system in my mind and I know that these buildings cannot endure that amount of fire and that amount of structural damage.”
Fifty-five minutes later, around 10 a.m., as Torrillo stood outside the South Tower, he heard “a huge rumble and roar” as the building started collapsing. “You idiot!,” he thought. “You said the tower was going to collapse and you’ve put yourself right underneath it!”
But, Torrillo noted, he thought the collapse would happen around 3 p.m.
“In less than an hour, the South Tower was collapsing. I was running as fast as I can and the building is collapsing like pancakes as each floor hit the floor below. I tried to make it to a foot bridge, hoping they could at least find a part of my body so they could have a funeral,” he said. “As I’m running, the air pressure was puffing the air down like a fireplace bellow, as 110 floors hit the floor below. I could feel the pressure on the back of my neck. The pressure took my helmet off my head and my helmet was flying through the air. The air pressure got so strong, maybe 200 mph, I was lifted off my feet, and I was flying through the air like Superman, but without the cape.”
As he was flying, a piece of steel from the Tower hit him in the back of the head, splitting it open as he landed on the concrete, breaking bones and causing internal bleeding.
“I’m buried with all these people. In the darkness, I was suffocating. All around I could hear people crying and screaming. We were all pinned under twisted steel and concrete,” he said. “After a while, there was silence. And I was in the middle of all these fires. I prayed I would suffocate to death before I burned to death. Then, I had a flash back to 20 years before when I was taking my vow as a fireman to lay down my life so someone else might live. I kept thinking, ‘I never took that vow seriously, but today, you’re living up to it.’ Then I said a pryer, thanking God for my career, accepting what was happening and asking Him to take care of my family.”
As Torrillo thought of his four kids, asking God to make his death quick, rescue workers found a void and pulled him and three others out of the rubble.
Torrillo was put on a spine board and taken to a boat in the Hudson River, hearing responders say he was going to die if they didn’t get him across to New Jersey.
Another loud rumble came as the North Tower began collapsing.
His rescuers ran for cover, leaving him to be buried a second time.
Suffering more injuries, “I broke loose from the spine board, rolled off and felt a door way and jumped in head first 10 feet to the engine room.” He lost consciousness.
An hour later, he heard people jumping onto the boat deck, and he was found, taken across the river, blacking out as he was put in the ambulance.
Still wearing the borrowed firefighter gear, he was admitted as Tommy McNamara, and for three days, Torrillo was declared missing.
“The only children’s hero who came to life is Billy Blazes, who on Sept. 11 would come to represent the 343 New York City firefighters who marched up to heaven together,” Torrillo said. “I was left behind that day for reasons I’ll never understand. Maybe it was to tell the story of the 343 heroes who made the supreme sacrifice.”
After he recovered enough to return to the site, “I couldn’t believe what my eyes were seeing. This was my neighborhood for 16 years. I couldn’t believe everything I protected, that was a big part of my life all of those years, was just gone,” Torrillo said. “It just seems so surreal. There are days where it’s like it happened a hundred years ago or just yesterday or not at all.”
As the years have passed, Torrillo has shared his Sept. 11 story hundreds of times.
Two years ago, his phone rang, and it was the same Fisher-Price executive from 18 years prior. She told him the company was resurrecting its Rescue Heroes line and “we’ve just made a new rescue hero called Joe Torrillo,” she said.
Torrillo retired on disability as a 25-year lieutenant with the NYC Fire Department.
When he isn’t a volunteer tour guide at Ground Zero, he travels the world as a professional speaker and accompanying Patriot Flag II.
The Patriot Flag Project is part of the World Memorial Foundation, a 501c3 charity begun on Sept. 11, 2001, by an American Airlines pilot.
Recently-retired San Diego Fire Department firefighter/paramedic Mitch Mendler, the foundation’s president, said the foundation is a tribute to all those involved in the Sept. 11 attacks — from the first responders to the second responders to the armed forces and all public safety personnel willing to make the supreme sacrifice daily for others — and their families.
“I’ve never met another person in this world like Mitch Mendler,” Torrillo said. “He is a patriot beyond a patriot. Mitch has been so instrumental with the Patriot Flag. That flag will live in infamy.”
The first Patriot Flag toured all 50 states, and in France, over 50 weeks during the “Never Forget Tour” leading into the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. It is now semi-retired and displayed in an American Legion Post near the crash site of United Flight 93.
Patriot Flag II began its 50-month “The Old Glory Tour” on the 15th anniversary. It has traveled more than 110,000 miles by air, land and sea via plane, car, train and boat to every state capitol and significant monuments, memorials, landmarks and anniversaries around the nation.
The flag was ceremonially presented to the Superman Celebration crowd in front of the Superman Statue on July 31. More than 120 superheroes — local Hometown Heroes, including the police and fire departments — were be joined by the city’s official Superman Josh Boultinghouse, costumed heroes and villains and a number of Massac Countians and Celebration attendees in the presentation of the 28-by-60-foot, 50-pound flag, that also included all 50 state flags, military and other official flags. A smaller ceremony was held Aug. 1.
Celebration’s co-chairperson Karla Ogle said the presentation of the Patriot Flag II was the highlight of the 43rd annual event.
“That was such an amazing moment,” she said. “You always want a highlight, something that everyone is like, ‘Oh, my gosh, that was the most incredible moment at the Celebration!’ There’s always lots of moments where you’re like, ‘Oh, that was so cool!’ But that was a moment — you look around and you were seeing American pride. There was nobody being anti-American and it was respectful and it was quiet.”
Through the Patriot Flag II project, “Mitch and I had a quest to make our country the Re-United States of America after Sept. 11, 2001, and to continue going across this country for the rest of our lives representing patriotism without any agendas or politics involved,” Torrillo said. “I know there are a lot of issues going on right now that are compromising what this country really represents. If you don’t respect that flag or know what that flag represents or aren’t happy here, I’ll let you in on a little secret: you’ll have no problem finding a flight to a country where you think you’re going to find it better.”
Torrillo noted that since the Revolutionary War, “1,343,812 men and women have taken up arms and laid down their lives in all branches of the military so you and I could have this life here today. … We are who we are because of that flag. … We will get this country back to where she belongs, but we have to do this together.”
Torrillo is scheduled to represent the United States in the Sept. 6-17 United States military tribunal at Guantánamo Bay against the five men who are facing charges of aiding the 19 men who hijacked passenger planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001. Torrillo’s testimony will be as a credible survivor and eye witness of the Sept. 11 attack.
Torrillo said the Patriot Flag II’s last mission will be flying outside the courthouse during that trial.
“I will tell them in the courtroom when they planned this attack against us, they should have looked at the American flag — the most known symbol of liberty, freedom and justice to people all around the globe,” Torrillo said. “They should have looked at that flag a little bit closer because on that flag are 13 red and white stripes that represent the original 13 colonies; a blue field with 50 white stars with each each representing a great state in this great nation; those stars are arranged in nine rows and 11 columns, symbolizing the day they made the biggest mistake challenging the integrity and fortitude of America and its people. And we will prevail.
“I promise you I will endure this trial at my own expense and sacrifice so I will bring back justice to what they’ve done to you and I and how they tried to change this world, but they failed,” he said. “And they will continue to fail because you will not defeat this country.”