We came in as individuals. And we’ll walk out together.
~Joe Bradley, Operating Engineer and Recovery Worker at Ground Zero (May 2002)
The pilot banked the plane to the left and began a slow arc around Battery Park – the human-made bit of land where the Hudson and East Rivers commingle. From my window seat on the left side of the plane, I looked almost directly down on the Twin Towers. In that cloudless, late summer sky, sunlight exploded off the upper floor windows. The Delta Shuttle continued up the East River for a short distance, crossed part of Queens, and finally landed at LaGuardia International Airport at approximately 8:30 a.m.
About fifteen minutes later, American Airlines Flight 11 was driven into the North Tower.
As we approach the 15th anniversary of 9/11, I continue to wrestle with three thoughts:
1. We can do great things as a nation – when we decide to. From the very beginning, building the Twin Towers was not going to be easy. At least three engineering challenges stood in the way of success:
- A uniquely designed retaining wall had to be installed to hold back the massive pressure of the nearby Hudson River, thus allowing the towers to be secured in bedrock.
- Wind-tunnel experiments were designed to help calculate the relative position of the two towers so that the extreme winds moving between them would not adversely affect their structural integrity.
- And finally, engineers overcame the challenge of building such extremely tall buildings on what were relatively small footprints by increasing the number of exterior load-bearing columns.
We could accomplish great things If we were to focus our collective intelligence and ingenuity on the infrastructure, environmental, and social issues facing the nation today.
2. Terrorism does not discriminate – but we do. Within the 9/11 Memorial, there is a small room that honors the almost three thousand Americans killed on September 11th. What you cannot help but see immediately in the photographs and hear in the audio remembrances is the incredible diversity in gender, race, and ethnicity. What we cannot see are those who were straight, gay, lesbian, or any other persuasion, but I have to believe that they all are represented on that wall. The only thing this diverse collection of individuals was guilty of that day was being American.
The cruel irony is that we still struggle as a nation to accept each other on that same narrow basis.
3. We can disagree with one another – but still respect one another. American veterans humbly point out that the real heroes are the brothers and sisters that fell in battle and won’t be coming back. While that may also be said of those who fell on 9/11, there are still heroes among us from that day who carry amazing stories of inspiration. One such individual is Joe Torrillo.
I first met Joe at the construction site of the new World Trade Center complex where he was volunteering as a Docent / Tour Guide. On 9/11, then FDNY Lieutenant Torrillo was serving as the Director of the FDNY’s Fire Safety Education Office. Joe had been injured fighting a previous fire and eagerly accepted his redeployment as a way to continue to serve the public.
While driving to a press conference related to those new duties, Joe learned that the North Tower had been hit. He immediately diverted to the scene at Ground Zero. He ran into his old station (#10) right across the street from the towers and pulled on the firefighting gear of a Lt. Tommy McNamara who was off duty that day. Joe then ran into the chaos to assist – and at that moment, the South Tower was struck, raining debris down on him. His training as a structural engineer told him that both towers would eventually collapse, so he attempted to get as many emergency vehicles away from the structures as he could.
When the South Tower collapsed, Joe was temporarily buried under rubble, sustaining massive injuries. He was uncovered and taken to a make-shift hospital – a boat on the Hudson River.
When the North Tower collapsed, Joe was pelted with debris. He dragged himself to a gangway and threw himself down the stairs, sustaining additional injuries. He was eventually taken to a hospital on the New Jersey side of the river. It took three long days to identify him because the name on the inside flap of his fireman’s coat did not read “Torrillo,” but rather “McNamara.”
Over the years, Joe and I have remained in close contact. I have invited him to speak in my company on two occasions, and we periodically meet in Manhattan where he graciously meets my NYC guests. During this time, I have come to know him as a gentle, humble, and extremely giving person – and someone who is very different from me politically.
We don’t see many issues the same way, but our relationship represents what should be our standard as a people: a willingness to – at the very least – respect our differences.
What I will remember
On September 11, 2016, I will think of the new Freedom Tower and the reconstruction of lower Manhattan – symbols of what Americans can do when they put their minds to it.
I will send Joe a note, acknowledging the 15th anniversary of that day, what he went through, and how he continues to support individuals through the leadership talks he now delivers across the country.
And I will note the juxtaposition of this anniversary occurring amid the throes of one of the most divisive political campaigns and periods in our nation’s history. I will remember the thousands of faces on the walls of the Memorial room – those Americans – and ponder how we can better honor them.
What will you remember?
Originally published on September 7, 2016