Two-time 9/11 survivor speaks out in Rancho Santa Fe

(L-R) Spirit of Liberty’s Richard Rovsek with Lieutenant Joe Torrillo of the New York City Fire Department.
(Jeanne Rawdin)

He’s been called a “window to history” and for very good reason. Retired Lieutenant Joe Torrillo of the New York City Fire Department is a two-time survivor of the 9/11 disaster in 2001. Why two times? Because Torrillo was rescued once on that fateful day as he tried to outrun the collapse of the South Tower.

“As I was running,” he vividly recalls, “the building was coming down faster and faster, and the gust from that collapse lifted me off of my feet and then a piece of steel split the back of my head wide open, two slabs of concrete hit my body, and now I’m buried under the twisted steel and concrete with many other people. In the darkness, we were all suffocating.”

Twenty-five minutes later, first responders found a void in the debris and dug until they found four survivors. Torrillo was one of them. They put him on a stretcher and delivered him to the deck of a boat on the Hudson River with other survivors, strapping him to a long spine board so he couldn’t move.

“And then,” Torrillo remembers, “we heard a loud rumble and everyone on the deck said, ‘Oh my God, here comes the other building!’ Then the North Tower collapsed, sending millions of shards of glass across the boat. Everybody dove overboard into the river and I was left behind.”

Torrillo managed to dive through a doorway onto the engine room floor. The collapse of the North Tower had buried the boat in the river and Torrillo was suffocating. Amazingly, Torrillo was rescued a second time and survived.

That is just part of the harrowing – and inspiring – story that Torrillo came to town to present to two civic groups in Rancho Santa Fe. Richard Rovsek, the founder of the Spirit of Liberty Foundation nonprofit based in Rancho Santa Fe, arranged Torrillo’s visit after meeting him two years ago at the 75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Rovsek says his foundation was primarily created to support men and women in the Armed Forces, but now they’ve started reaching out to first responders as well. Rovsek said he believes Torrillo is not only a hero but a “bookend in history” to those who survived Pearl Harbor. “Nobody knows more about 9/11 than Joe does,” says Rosvek. “He’s lived through the whole thing.”

The irony of Torrillo’s survival is that he wasn’t even supposed to be near the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He was preparing to attend a major news conference at Rockefeller Center to present Fisher Price’s new firefighter action figure named Billy Blazes. Torrillo helped in the creation and production of the prototype. “As I’m going over the Brooklyn Bridge,” he recollects, “I could see about 10 floors of fire all around the top of the North Tower. I thought, what do I do? Make a right and go to Rockefeller Center for Billy Blazes or make a left and go to my old firehouse where I started my career across the street from the South Tower?”

He took the left. He borrowed firefighter clothing from someone off duty and ran toward the North Tower. “I heard a roar and looked up and the second jet came right over my head. And then I realized we were under a terrorist attack. There were two things I said to everybody. I said everybody on the top of the building is going to die. We’re not going to get to them and they’re not going to get down. And I said these buildings are going to collapse.”

At the time, no one knew that Torrillo had a background in structural engineering. During college, two of his professors took the class on a tour as the twin towers were being built.

“As new engineering students, we marveled at the fact that they seemed to be missing the requisite amount of steel that you would think would be holding them up like the Empire State Building. We just couldn’t believe that the two biggest buildings in the world were missing so much of what we thought -- the steel -- should be included in the structure. Nonetheless, the towers stood for 30 years until 9/11 when they were attacked and eventually did collapse.”

When the sun came up the following morning, he remembers thinking, “The only real children’s rescue hero who ever came to life was Billy Blazes on the morning of September 11, 2001. And he would come to represent the 343 firefighters who all marched up to heaven together. And I was so depressed. I couldn’t understand, why did they leave me behind? Why didn’t they take me with them?”

Torrillo struggled with extreme “survivor guilt” for years. Yet through his public speaking, he said he finally realized that God spared his life for a reason, and he had a bigger mission in the world. His mission, as he puts it, is to make our country the “Re-United States of America” by resurrecting patriotism through his incredible story.

For more information or to book Torrillo for a speaking event, go to