By MARK NEWMAN
Courier staff writer
---- — 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.
“I knew that building was coming down,” he told the audience — and other emergency workers. “They thought I was crazy.”
What he thought was crazy, however, was the discovery that commanders had set up staging areas and emergency care stations in the worst possible place. They established their command posts “in the lobby of the World Trade Center” Twin Towers buildings. First he told people to get out of there. Some left, some stayed. Those who remained refused his orders. So instead, he said, he forced them out. He wouldn't take "no" for an answer. He cleared the lobby.
Of course, he was right. What he was wrong on was how long it would take. Hours, he had thought. It was 55 minutes since impact as he was walking away from the tower. One floor of a building fell about 15 feet, landing on another floor that, while it could hold a stable building above it, was never meant to support a building dropping on it. Combined with damage to the structure from fire and stress, each floor collapsed as the one above it landed.
“I ran as fast as I could. I figured I had about 10 seconds to live, and was afraid they’d never find my body, to be able to identify me,” he said.
He aimed for a small foot bridge he thought would keep his corpse relatively intact. The wind from the collapsing building yanked his helmet off. He ran on a few more seconds but never quite made it to the bridge. He was struck by a beam that cracked his skull open. The lieutenant went down, still conscious. A cement block dropped on him, breaking ribs and causing internal bleeding. More debris kept falling until he was buried, with additional smashed bones.
“It was darker than midnight,” he said. “I heard screams around me, but couldn’t see anything. The screams [continued], but turned to crying. Then there was just [quiet whimpering] until finally, there was silence, and I knew all those people [buried around me] were dead.”
He could also hear the emergency alarm beeping on his firefighter gear. After a while, so did rescuers, who dug him out, held his skull together and loaded him onto a back board. They evacuated him to a boat for transport to a hospital. As they secured him on the boat, the second tower collapsed. Debris crashed into the docks, then rained down on the boat, burying Torrillo alive, strapped to a board and unable to move, see or breath clearly. Nearly an hour later, he was found and rescued for the second time that day.
“I woke up in a hospital in New Jersey,” he said.
He’d left his officer’s dress uniform at his old firehouse, borrowing an off-duty firefighter's gear to help with the rescue effort. When a crew found his uniform in a locker room three days later, the NYFD assumed he was dead.
Contrary to doctors' predictions, he is walking and, though now retired from the NYFD, he travels the country hoping to encourage the "Re-United States of America."
As a representative of the USA, he said, he almost had to skip the Ottumwa visit to do his civic duty as a citizen. He recently returned from Guantanamo Bay, the military facility in Cuba. Prosecutors have asked him to testify in the trials of five men on trial in connection with the terrorist attack on 9/11.
"Now I'm able to confront them in court," he said later.
News reporter Mark Newman is on Twitter @couriermark