Education

Lazar Living Lessons Series: FDNY Firefighter Trapped on 9/11 Inspires Students to Be Heroes

FDNY Lt. Joe Torrillo holds Billy Blazes as he speaks at Lazar's Living Lessons Credits: Melissa Benno
FDNY Lt. Joe Torrillo holds Billy Blazes as he speaks at Lazar's Living Lessons Credits: Melissa Benno
Sixth-graders Gabriella Doncoes and Gabriella Giudice Credits: Melissa Benno
FDNY Lt. Joe Torrillo points to Billy Blazes as he speaks at Lazar's Living Lessons Credits: Melissa Benno
FDNY Lt. Joe Torrillo shows the poster made shortly after his rescue became known Credits: Melissa Benno

MONTVILLE, NJ – On May 18, Lazar Middle School students were inspired by more than 50 speakers who visited the school as part of the Living Lessons program and shared their stories of strength in overcoming great tragedy.

The Living Lessons program: Voices, Visions and Values occurs at Lazar Middle School every other year which gives students an opportunity to hear speakers on diverse, challenging and touching stories designed for their grade level.

Sixth-grader Gabriella Doncoes said the day was a great opportunity to see how the speakers overcame the obstacles in their lives.

Sign Up for E-News

“It showed me that everything’s possible,” she said. “It was cool how they all had different stories. Some were tragic while some were hard to overcome.”

Firefighter Lt. Joe Torrillo spoke to sixth graders about his experience being crushed in the debris of the collapsed World Trade Center, yet eventually being discovered and rescued.

He began his tale by saying he had gotten his structural engineering degree when several friends went to take the New York City firefighting exam. They convinced him to come along, too. Out of 70,000 test takers, only 3,000 passed, and he was one – although all of his friends failed, he said with a chuckle.

“We all have dreams about what we want to be,” he said. “But it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes we have to have a Plan B.”

He told the kids that even with a Plan B, no matter what their dream was, if they stayed committed to their dream, they could be anything they wanted to be. He also advised the students to have fun – but “keep your fun in perspective.”

“Learn from your mistakes,” he said, “because those who don’t become failures.”

Torrillo joined the FDNY and was successful, working in the fire station across the street from the World Trade Center. In 1997, an injury forced a desk job on him, in the Fire Safety Education Department. Eight months later he was named director.

His vision for fire safety education became the Fire Zone Learning Center. Then-mayor Giuliani gave him a $3 million budget, the interactive experience opened in October of 2000 and would later go on to win an Emmy.

“I hadn’t started off looking to win an award,” he said. “I wanted learning to be fun.”

One day, Fisher Price Toy Company called him and said they wanted to design an action figure in their new line called Rescue Heroes. The fire fighter was to be called Billy Blazes. They showed the prototype to Torrillo and he advised them to give the fire fighter a big, bushy mustache – which Torrillo just happens to have. Torrillo also told them most fire fighters smoke big cigars, but the toy company demurred on that point.

The launch date for the finalized action figure was September 11, 2001, because Torrillo said the date signified 9-1-1, the digits they wanted to teach children to call in case of emergency. The launch event was being held at the Fire Zone Learning Center in midtown.

However, as Torrillo was entering Manhattan on this way to the event, he saw the north tower of the World Trade Center was on fire. He quickly made the decision to head downtown and join with other firefighters to help save lives. He went to his former fire station, borrowed turnout gear and ran to the buildings. As he was running, the second plane hit the south tower.

“I realized it was a terror attack, and I knew the buildings were going to collapse,” he said.

Torrillo’s training as a structural engineering included training with professors who dealt with concrete engineering and had helped to design the specialized system used in the World Trade Center.

“I worked across the street from the buildings, I had an affection for them and studied them,” he said. “I tried to convince the EMS personnel in the lobby to evacuate, but they were hesitant to listen to my warnings. They couldn’t understand why I was chasing them out.”

Torrillo got out of the building but was trapped under a pedestrian bridge nearby. The air pressure from the collapsing building was so strong it swept him off his feet. The back of his skull was fractured, his spine was crushed, and all of his ribs were broken. Eventually he was discovered and rescued, and placed on a boat to get to a New Jersey hospital. However, glass raining down on the boat from the collapse of the north tower forced the rescue personnel to evacuate the vessel, and he was abandoned. He managed to unbuckle his seatbelt and roll into the engine room, where he almost suffocated but managed to survive. Eventually he was rescued again and made it to the hospital.

Six firefighters from his former fire station perished that day, and he is still undergoing surgeries to repair the damage done to his body that day. He admits he was very angry with survivor’s guilt for a long time. But Torrillo’s message to the students was inspiring after his ordeal.

“Every one of you has what it takes to be a hero,” he told the students. “Stay the course and use your head. You are way smarter than we ever give you credit for. And never miss an opportunity to have fun.”

TAP Into Another Town's News:

You May Also Be Interested In

Sign Up for E-News

Montville

Upcoming Events

Carousel_image_e408d486377b96dc1c21_img_0333

Sat, November 18, 10:00 AM

Montville Township Senior House, Montville

Holiday Boutique Vendor & Craft Show To Benefit ...

Arts & Entertainment

Carousel_image_e26aa5b4e4ab4ab297eb_onemontville_fundraiser

Sun, November 19, 2:00 PM

AMC Loews in Wayne, Wayne

"Wonder" Movie Screening by OneMontville

Arts & Entertainment Education

Carousel_image_c9d9d9b244a8c13cc32e_img_5625

Mon, November 20, 10:00 AM

Montville Township Public Library, Montville

Story Time at Library

Arts & Entertainment

Carousel_image_1785628ab01a0ede12df_a_municipal_building_watermark

Mon, November 20, 7:30 PM

Montville Township Municipal Building, Montville

Planning Board Meeting

Government

Carousel_image_afaf0f08828a7dd5ad46_homeless_bus

Tue, November 21, 7:00 PM

Montville Township High School, Montville

School of Rock Dinner/Concert for Homeless Bus

Arts & Entertainment Education Food & Drink Giving Back

Library Closures and Thanksgiving Schedule

November 17, 2017

MONTVILLE, NJ – The Montville Township Public Library announces its Thanksgiving hours plus four days of closure due to updates to equipment.

The library will be closed on Thanksgiving and the Friday after, but please also note these special changes to the schedule:

Wednesday, Nov. 22: closing at 5 p.m.

Thursday, Nov. 23 (closed for Thanksgiving)

Friday, Nov. 24 ...

Montville Veterans Day Commemoration Features Principal's Family Story

November 15, 2017

MONTVILLE, NJ – Residents gathered to commemorate Veterans Day on Saturday, Nov. 11, and as usual, former VFW Post 5481 commander Frank Warholic hosted a patriotic and moving ceremony.

Police officers Robert Koetzner and Alexander Yang, and VFW members Joe Coll and Dick Gamsby presented the colors, and Father Mark Olenowski of St. Pius gave a blessing during which he stated his father ...

Veterans Speak About Their War Experiences at Montville Library

November 10, 2017

MONTVILLE, NJ – Residents gathered at the Montville Township Public Library on Nov. 9 to hear the stories of veterans from VFW Post 5481, a rare treat for even fellow members of the post, one post member said.

Gerry Gemian, who served in the Pacific in World War II and was a Staff Sergeant in the Army, wanted to explain about the Pacific theater.

“I saw action in the Marshall ...

Montville Township High School Mustangs “Buy-A-Brick” Fundraiser

November 14, 2017

MONTVILLE, NJ – Pave the way to support MTHS athletics and create a lasting legacy! The Montville Mustangs Association invites you to become a permanent part of Montville Township High School by purchasing a personalized, engraved commemorative brick for a planned patio to be located in front of the high school, surrounding the Mustang statue. 

Bricks are $100 for a 4” by ...

Kellyanne Conway Returns to New Jersey to Speak with Morris County Women

November 15, 2017

BRANCHBURG, NJ - A caravan of Morris County women traveled to the Fox Hollow Country Club to hear fellow Jersey Girl Kellyanne Conway speak about the economy, the impending tax overhaul and life working at the White House.  

Kellyanne arrived to thunderous applause as women mostly from Morris, Somerset, Hunterdon and Middlesex counties stood and cheered. Attendance was ...

Volunteers Assemble 1,500 Care Packages for US Troops Deployed Overseas

November 11, 2017

MANVILLE, NJ – More than 500 volunteers, young and old, helped Operation Shoebox New Jersey assemble 1,500 personal care packages during the XIII annual Military Appreciation packing event held in conjunction with Veterans Day.

The event was held on Saturday, Nov. 4, at the Manville VFW, 600 Washington Ave.

It took only two hours to build the boxes, pack the bags, assemble the boxes, ...

Atlantic Health's Dr. Bernard Maria Recognized with Most Prestigious Child Neurology Honor

November 17, 2017

MORRISTOWN, NJ – Dr. Bernard Maria, director of the Division of Child Neurology and Developmental Medicine at Goryeb Children's Hospital, part of Atlantic Health System, has been recognized with the 2018 Hower Award, the highest recognition from the Child Neurology Society.

This prestigious award is given yearly to one member of the Child Neurology Society who is highly regarded by ...

Columns

Sustained, Severe Cuts Equal Setbacks at NJ Department of Environmental Protection

November 6, 2017

Long-term budget and staff cuts have severely impacted the ability of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to carry out critical work to protect New Jersey’s environment and residents. This has serious implications for wildlife, public health and our economy. DEP is charged with managing and protecting the State’s environment and natural resources.

This ...

Open Houses this Weekend Presented by Century 21

MONTVILLE, NJ - Following are Century 21 Open Houses this weekend:

Saturday, Nov. 18 from 1 - 4 p.m.

Brownstones at Fairfield, Stonybrook Circle (Using FGPS - Enter 66 Two Bridges Road)
8 Summit Drive, Bld #10, North Caldwell

Sunday, Nov. 19 from 1 - 4 p.m.

Brownstones at Fairfield, Stonybrook Circle (Using FGPS - Enter 66 Two Bridges Road)
8 ...

Why Parenting is Harder for Parents of Teens

My husband forwarded an article to me, “The thing about raising teenagers that no one wants to say out loud.” (link below)  It hit me… hard… so hard that I felt compelled to share and expand on it.  If your family is struggling, you’ll definitely relate.  It’s all too true, and I experienced it, too.

Therapists and coaches can help you ...

Pet Corner