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story.lead_photo.caption Joe Torrillo, former FDNY firefighter, spoke to students at Helias Catholic High School Thursday about life and education choices and how he ended up buried under rubble after the attacks on New York's Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Torrillo suffered many injuries and lost numerous colleagues while trying to rescue people in the towers. In addition to visiting several area high schools, Torrillo will speak at Friday evening's Patriot Day ceremony at the Capitol. Photo by Julie Smith / Fulton Sun.

He spent about half an hour in blackness, buried under tons of rubble from the World Trade Center South Tower.

Minutes earlier, as he ran toward the North Tower, Joe Torrillo, then a lieutenant in the New York Fire Department, witnessed victims jumping from South Tower windows 100 stories above — desperate to escape after a plane struck the building on 9/11.

The sound of bodies hitting the streets was horrific.

Torrillo, the last firefighter rescued from the collapsing towers, was the keynote speaker during the 9/11 remembrance ceremony held Friday night on the state Capitol South Lawn.

The day of the attacks, he continued toward the scene. When the South Tower collapsed, the shock wave tossed him in the air.

"A piece of steel split the back of my head open. Huge slabs of concrete were hitting my body," he told about 500 people gathered outside the Capitol. "With every slab I could hear bone breaking. I got a fractured skull, my ribs were broke, and my left arm was snapped in half."

Torrillo was bleeding internally, and suffocating in the dust kicked up by the collapsed building.

He was buried with people who had been caught while fleeing the buildings.

"We couldn't see each other, we couldn't breathe — there was no light," he said. "And after a while, the screams under that darkness turned into cries. The cries turned into whimpers. The whimpers into silence."

After a moment, he realized everyone else died and he was still alive.

And, he did something he hadn't done in a long time — prayed.

"I actually thanked God for my career, and I accepted my fate. I knew that one day something like this could happen," Torrillo said. "I begged God, take care of my family and friends, and make the news easy on them."

However, after being buried for about 25 minutes, searchers found him and several other survivors. The rescuers rushed them to a boat on the Hudson River. However, when the North Tower collapsed, he was buried again.

Rescuers again found Torrillo about an hour later.

He said 343 firefighters marched up to Heaven together, and he remained behind to tell their stories.

"I'm grateful for coming here to beautiful Jefferson City," he said. "This has been a really, really happy time for me — to be able to come here."

Onlookers began gathering on the lawn earlier in the evening — drawn by 9/11 displays and memorials. They viewed the names of the 2,977 victims of the attacks, printed across two sides of a tractor trailer before the ceremony.

Squelchy radio sound pulled listeners close, then the recordings of the New York Fire Department radio chatter cast listeners into that dark day.

"The tower just collapsed! It just collapsed!" a firefighter reports.

A nearby skeletal model of the steel structure that remained after the collapse assisted memories to well up within passersby.

Battered helmets, coats, boots and other gear reminiscent of that used by emergency personnel also helped viewers build connections to the past.

A 700-plus-pound chunk of steel from the South Tower is on display. Displays are to remain at the Capitol indefinitely.

"I didn't know what to expect," said Ginni Griffith, of Jefferson City, and nodded to the tractor trailer. "The gravity of so many names."

So many names.

Event organizers selected 31 local high school students to read each victim's name.

The students began about 8 p.m. They were expected to finish about midnight.

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