Joe Torrillo never had aspirations to be a firefighter. He went to school for engineering and wanted to be an architect.
After being convinced to take the firefighter exam test by his friends, Torrillo took the test, and admits he did it as a joke.
“I took the test on a whim,” said Torrillo, who spoke during the final installment of the Juneau Glacier Valley Rotary Club’s Pillars of America series at Centennial Hall Wednesday. “I was the only one of my friends who passed. I just wanted to get appointed and then resign the next day so I could bring it up when I went golfing with my friends.”
But, Torrillo did not leave. In fact, he took a job at the New York City Fire Department in 1981 when he was 25. Torrillo worked through the ranks and eventually he became a lieutenant.
After an apartment fire on New Year’s Eve 1996 caused a major injury to his hand, Torrillo was assigned office duty. Torrillo treated that as a new opportunity and took on a position in the fire education training program. The program assigned firefighters to teach fire prevention and safety in schools. He was later named as director of that program.
“The former director thought I orchestrated the whole thing,” Torrillo said. “I worked day and night on that project. I never had any teaching experience, but I found out I had a hidden talent.”
He then was part of the development of a new building for the fire education program called “The Fire Zone” — which was a separate building from the fire station. Torrillo said the building won a Themed Entertainment Award at the 2002 Emmy’s for its design.
That notoriety got interest from Fisher Price. He was contacted by the toy company about creating a new firefighter action figure, Billy Blazes.
It was that toy that changed Torrillo’s life. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he was driving to a press conference for the release of the new toy at his building in midtown Manhattan. He had heard about a plane crashing into the north tower and he initially just thought it was a minor incident.
“I was worried I was going to run into traffic and be late,” Torrillo said.
He soon realized, the crash was no accident.
“I had to decide whether it would be Billy Blazes or take action,” Torrillo said. “I took action.”
Torrillo made his way to the fire station he started his career at to pick up gear. That department, Engine Company #10, was right across the street from the towers. Torrillo said he could tell that from the impact, the building were going to collapse. He attempted and finally succeeded in getting emergency crews out of the building.
“Nobody believed me at first, but eventually everybody got out,” Torrillo said.
However, during the chaos, Torrillo had put himself right into the disaster zone. Soon, the hotel beside the towers had been hit, and debris trapped Torrillo. He was convinced he was going to die.
“I told myself I was not going to die angry,” he said. “I prayed to God and thanked him for my career.”
Torrillo and others were eventually rescued, but when the crews were trying to get the survivors out of the city, the north tower fell and he was buried a second time. Since Torrillo was wearing another firefighter’s suit, he was misidentified at the site and was declared missing for three days.
After recovering from a fractured skull and several other serious injuries, Torrillo attempted to go back to the fire department and resume his position in the fire prevention program. But, due to the results from his injuries, he was forced into disability retirement.
“I was at a fork in the road,” Torrillo said.
Torrillo admitted he went through sadness during this time. However, just like when he decided to become a firefighter instead of an architect, Torrillo found another purpose with his life.
Since 2010, Torrillo has been travelling the country with the mission of “Re-Uniting the States of America.” Part of that message was traveling to 275 cities in all 50 states with a flag. Torrillo now visits schools, war veterans and landmarks around the country promoting his mission.
Torrillo said his story should act as a message to anyone that no matter where you find yourself in life, there is always a way to achieve new goals.
“I want you all to be strong in life,” Torrillo said. “It was through hard times that I learned the most about myself. Failure is not getting knocked down, it is not getting back up.”
Kylee Watts, an 11th grader at Thunder Mountain High School said Torrillo’s work ethic should be commended.
“I like how he overcame those obstacles,” Watts, 17, said. “He worked so hard to get where he is.”
Adrian Whitney, an 8th grader at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School, said he was inspired by Torrillo’s message.
“Joe Torrillo really taught us all a lesson that you need to push forward and not look behind,” Whitney, 14, said. “No matter what, there is always something for you and you should always push for your dreams.”
• Contact reporter Gregory Philson at email@example.com or call at 523-2265. Follow him on Twitter at @GTPhilson.