Knoxville — I had the privilege last Friday of listening to Lt. Joe Torillo of the New York Fire Department describe what the events of Sept. 11, 2001, were like for him. I'll attempt to retell his story, but if you can find him providing a similar lecture online somewhere, take time to watch and listen.
Torillo was injured years before 9/11. While he healed, he took a job as a fire educator for the department. When he recovered, he had become so involved and made such a difference in the reduction of deaths, due to fires, in New York City, that he stuck with it.
Over the years, he had grown his program, which reached out strongly to schoolchildren, and it included a $3 million facility dedicated to fire safety education.
Fisher Price toys had called him to help them design a firefighter character for its Rescue Heroes line of toys. The company wanted the character to represent a member of the NYFD.
The character and the toy, known as Billy Blazes, had been finalized after a lengthy design process. Torillo and a few interns were on their way to a press conference to unveil the new character the morning of Sept. 11. On his way to the conference, he saw the smoke coming out of the north tower of the World Trade Center.
He was still familiar with the area. The firehouse he served with was near the center, so he rushed there, grabbed some gear, and headed for the tower. On his way, the south tower was hit.
Torillo, who has a background in structural engineering, knew the towers were going to fall because of the attack. He was inside one of the towers, trying to help people get out, when it collapsed. He was buried in the rubble, along with several others.
Torillo was rescued and placed on a boat to be transported to a hospital in New Jersey. That's when more debris fell on the boat, burying him once again.
Again, he was rescued. His life was saved, although, because he was wearing someone else's gear, Joe Torillo was declared dead. His vehicle had been found in the debris. He was nowhere to be found.
New York City considered him dead for a few days. However, as he told the story, he said his wife knew in her heart that he was still alive.
Speaking to a room full of journalists, questions were sure to arise following his presentation. He was asked if he dealt with survivor's guilt. What he did suffer from, the first couple of years after 9/11, was survivor's anger. While 343 fellow firemen died in the most honorable way imaginable, he was jealous for a time that he was not able to march into Heaven along with so many of his brethren.
He has since pushed that aside and focused on sharing his story. What I also enjoyed about his presentation was his unapologetic patriotism. While he didn't want to offend anyone born outside of the United States, by calling this nation the greatest on Earth (which it is), he praised America quite a bit.
I wanted to shake his hand, but quite a line was already in place. Besides, he was signing pictures and I didn't know if he was charging for them. (He wasn’t.) I didn't really want to pay for one.
Later on, as I was walking around the skywalk with Pella Chronicle Editor Clint Brown, we ran into him. We had a nice conversation with him. He raved about the skywalk system.
It's always nice when I have the opportunity to shake hands with an American hero, especially one who seems to have the same kind of temperament as myself. On top of all of that, Torillo spoke in the morning. He was in his full dress uniform for his speech and when I saw him again that night, he was still there, in full uniform. I don't know if he had another engagement or not, but I liked the fact that he seemed genuinely interested in our state and our profession.
People like Torillo are what make this country great. While the idiots in Washington keep trying to ruin this country, they will never succeed because there are too many great people, in this great nation, to keep it that way. Torillo once considered a run for office, but chose not to. As for me, I think we need to completely restock the House, Senate, White House and the far too numerous federal bureaucracies with people like him.
Take care of yourself and thank you for reading.