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.
“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.”