Former NYC firefighter speaks about his experience on 9/11

Former NYC firefighter Joe Torrillo (image courtesy

On Sept. 26, Des Moines Area Community College hosted Joe Torrillo, a former New York City firefighter who was buried alive twice on September 11, 2001. Torrillo spoke to an overflowing room in Building 2, and many audience members were brought to tears during his story.  

 Torrillo opened his speech by giving some background information about his life. He talked about how he was born and raised in Brooklyn, and how the area he lived in was filled with gangs. Torrillo joked by describing his neighborhood as a “spagetto,” because it was a dangerous area that consisted of Italians. Torrillo went on to talk about how the place he grew up made him destined to become a civil service worker, which inspired him to want to become a police officer.  

He ended up going to school to become a firefighter, and he graduated at the top of his class. After he got through his fire program Torrillo took his first assignment as a firefighter at a firehouse directly across from the World Trade Center buildings. After working for that fire department for several years, Torrillo became the Director of the Fire Safety Unit to educate his community on fire safety. Torrillo’s work sparked the interest of his community and the toy company Fisher-Price.  

Fisher Price contacted Torrillo to make an action figure based on him and his work. Torrillo eagerly agreed and the figure Billy Blaze was created. Torrillo and Fisher-Price agreed to launch the toy on September 11, 2001. When giving his speech, Torrillo explained that he picked the date because it represented 911, the number you dial for emergency services. Torrillo talked about how the day was supposed to be filled with excitement and joy, and that nothing would have prepared him for the day to come.  

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Torrillo was in his office when the first tower was struck. Like most of America, Torrillo thought it was a terrible accident. Torrillo frantically left his office to get ahead of traffic so he could attend the conference in New York City to unveil the Billy Blaze action figure. When he reached the Brooklyn Bridge, he watched the second tower get hit, and he said the only thing he could think about was the original fire station he had worked for. Torrillo explained that he immediately turned around so that he could go help that fire station. 

This was the point in Torrillo’s story that the room he was speaking to fell completely silent, and the entire audience became overwhelmingly somber. Torrillo talked about how he knew that the towers would eventually collapse because he had studied the Twin Towers specific architecture while in college. Torrillo told the group that he needed to warn the first responders of this, and that when he eventually got geared up and made it to the first tower to spread the warning the tower began to crumble. 

“For the first time in my life I knew I wasn’t going to be able to save people,” Torrillo said. He then said he heard a large rumble and knew he only had about ten seconds left to live. 

Torrillo went on to tell us that the first tower fell on him, burying him completely, breaking his ribs and fracturing his skull. He was rescued quickly and put on a boat for fast transportation to a hospital. When placed on the boat the south tower started to fall causing the debris to rush towards Torrillo and all the crew on board. 

Torrillo said that everyone on board began jumping into the water to save themselves while leaving him behind strapped to a medical board. Although severely injured, Torrillo fought off the board and flung his body down to the engine room for safety. Torrillo was eventually rescued by the first responders and made a full recovery.  

This concluded Torrillo’s story, but he went on to end his speech by giving the room advice. He talked about how he did not understand why something so awful happened to him. Torrillo said he questioned why he decided to turn around that day instead of continuing to the Billy Blaze conference. As time went on, Torrillo realized he made the decision due to his instinct to save people and would not have done anything differently because he had impacted people’s lives. “You all can be Billy Blazes,” said Torrillo, and ended his presentation by telling the room they needed to go on to impact people’s lives and that situations in life are not always what is expected, but that does mean they are not bad.  


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