OTTUMWA — Joe Torrillo, a New York Fire Department lieutenant, was listed as the only person to survive being buried alive by the collapse of both Twin Towers, one after another, on 9/11.
"They called it one of the worst disasters on American soil," he said of the New York attacks. "It wasn't."
He told an Ottumwa audience, rescue personnel had two of the worst disasters on American soil to deal with at the same time.
First, a 110-story building, he said, suffered a direct hit from a passenger jet. That was a disaster, to which firefighters and other emergency personnel responded. They set up command centers to deal with the almost impossible-to-imagine scenario. Off-duty firefighters were rushing to help — without walkie-talkies — and the signal booster in lower Manhatten was damaged by the crash, making communication more difficult for those trying to organize the response. Then, said Torrillo, came the second plane.
"I heard a noise, and looked up, and this is what I saw," he said, showing a slide of the second plane a single moment away from crashing into the second tower.
Torrillo was the keynote speaker at the 10th Annual Diversity Conference, which is hosted annually by Indian Hills Community College. His experience, he shared, taught him and reaffirmed things he'd already known, including the strength Americans have to support one another during difficult times.
Another lesson: Study, learn and be able to think for yourself. Do what's right.
While a student at a technical college in New York, Torrillo had a structural engineering instructor who’d worked on the World Trade Center in the 70s. So Torrillo and his fellow engineering students were able to get an insider tour of the structure.
“I remember being confused and amazed,” he recalled.
He couldn’t believe something that looked so fragile could hold up a building that size. But there was an understanding that there was a difference between strength needed for a moving part and the strength needed for a generally stationary structure — like a building.