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9/11 survivor to share his story

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In his own words: 9/11 survivor and former New York City Fire Department Lt. Joe Torrillo will speak at the Meals on Wheels 'Sumptuous Settings' fundraiser on March 12.
In his own words: 9/11 survivor and former New York City Fire Department Lt. Joe Torrillo will speak at the Meals on Wheels 'Sumptuous Settings' fundraiser on March 12.

GREENFIELD — Given the catastrophic destruction and mind-numbing losses of Sept. 11, 2001, it would be hard to imagine that New York City Fire Department Lt. Joe Torrillo could have had a worse morning.

Some might wonder whether it would have been better to be killed outright than to have been buried alive. Twice.

But not Torrillo, who will be the featured speaker at Meals on Wheels of Hancock County’s “Sumptuous Settings” fundraiser on March 12.

He was basically just plain mad.

“I knew those buildings were going to fall,” Torrillo said Friday from California where he was speaking.

And when the towers fell, an event seen virtually around the world, Torrillo was underneath them.

First he was caught under the tangle of iron and rock that had been the South Tower. There he lay bleeding internally with a fractured skull, crushed spine and a broken arm and ribs.

It was miracle enough to be pulled from the South Tower carnage, but while rescuers were “holding my head together” outside the rubble, the North Tower collapsed, and once again Torrillo was consumed.

“I had resigned myself to death. I was comfortable with it. But I was angry with myself for putting myself in that situation and destroying my whole family whose lives would never be the same.”

The thing is, Torrillo wasn’t even supposed to be there that morning. He was on his way to a press conference for an educational fire safety program he directed for the department. But when the planes hit, there was really nothing to think about. He turned around, borrowed some bunker gear and went in.

“It’s the job I took,” he said.

It took four years “to get back to feeling somewhat normal,” and nine years after retiring from the department he still takes medication for the head trauma, he said.

“Sometimes that day seems like a hundred years ago,

sometimes it seems like yesterday, and sometimes it seems like it never happened,” Torrillo said.

But that was then.

Now, Torrillo is a man with a mission. He’s not always sure what the mission is, but that isn’t the real issue.

“I feel like God’s got his hand on my back and pushing me where I’m supposed to go. I don’t always know where it is I’m going, but I know God has a purpose and I have to carry that out.”

That Torrillo is driven by a divine plan might seem an odd sentiment from a Brooklyn kid who says he disconnected from religion after 12 years of religious school. But in some ways that’s precisely what Torrillo wants people to know.

“You can always come back and start all over again – easily,” he said. “Don’t try to be better than everyone else; try to be better than you could’ve been.”

The past, he said, is not all that different than the rubble he was pulled from a dozen years ago. It’s over. It’s the future that matters.

“There’s a reason the windshield is bigger than the rearview mirror,” Torrillo said.

There are many levels of catastrophe. For many senior citizens, it is having to move from their homes because they are unable to care for themselves. Meals on Wheels delivers two meals per day to seniors who sign up for the service. Often those meals make the difference between staying and leaving.

The number of seniors in this situation is anticipated to grow quickly in Hancock County.

Torrillo’s message will, it is hoped, draw attention to Meals on Wheels’ largest fundraiser of the year. Revenue generated from “Sumptuous Settings” accounts for more than half of all the money the organization raises annually, said executive director Melissa Ewald.

“It’s definitely our biggest fundraiser, and we would like to make upwards of $15,000 on this event,” Ewald said.

Last year, Meals served almost 33,000 lunches and dinners to 133 senior citizens countywide, and Ewald said the need for the organization’s services remains constant.

“A huge percentage of our clients are over the age of 85, and we encourage independent living as much as we can,” Ewald said. “Sometimes having a meal delivered to your home makes all the difference in the world.”

The group is still taking donations for silent auction items, and sponsorship opportunities remain available at $500 and $1,000 levels, she said.

Catered this year by OnSiteCaterer of Indianapolis, the event begins at 6 p.m. at Addaggio’s Banquet Hall and Conference Center, 5999 W. Memory Lane.

Tickets for the event are $35.

To purchase tickets or for more information, call (317) 477-4345.

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