Firefighters from NYC to lead parade |

Firefighters from NYC to lead parade

Eileen JoyceNew York firefighter Joe Torrillo answers Nevada Countians' questions Thursday at Friar Tuck's in Nevada City.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

Nearly five months later, many of us still refer to them in the same context once reserved for superstar athletes and the Hollywood elite.

Though they would never admit it, the New York City firefighters who responded to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have begrudgingly accepted the term.

To many, they are – and always will be – heroes.

Two of New York’s firefighters arrived Wednesday and will be in town through Tuesday to serve as grand marshals for the 10th annual Joe Cain Procession, which begins at 2 p.m. Sunday on Broad Street in downtown Nevada City.

Firefighters Joe Torrillo and Steven Merenda don’t readily accept the “hero” moniker.

“I’m honored,” said Torrillo, FDNY director of fire safety education. “It gives you a lot of dignity and says a lot about people who consider us heroes.”

Merenda, a firefighter for the FDNY’s Ladder 18 on the the Lower East Side, has relatives near Sacramento.

“It’s going to be a welcome break and a much-needed one,” he said of this trip West.

“I’m excited about it.”

Both firefighters were heavily involved in sorting out the rubble after two planes hit the World Trade Center.

Torrillo, who spent 15 years working in the firehouse across from the Twin Towers, was in Brooklyn launching a new doll sponsored by the fire department.

Merenda was much closer – the fifth floor of the north tower – when the south tower crashed.

Reliving the scene helps others understand just how great the firefighters’ task was.

“It was ridiculous,” said Torrillo, who rushed to the scene from Brooklyn. “It was heart-breaking, seeing all the people die in front of you. I was looking at people whose lives were coming to an end, and there’s nothing I could do.”

Torrillo broke an arm and ribs and fractured his skull as he dodged falling debris. He was in the hospital for four days.

Merenda hustled people from the fifth floor of the north tower to safer ground after he saw the south tower collapse.

“There really was no sense of panic,” said Merenda, who lives on Staten Island. In fact, the scariest thing he saw was people breathing through their shirts.

With his oxygen mask on, Merenda thought he might be mobbed by people gasping for fresh air. He tempted fate by climbing to the sixth floor to rescue as many people as he could.

Once outside, his group rushed to a bridge nearby and watched the building collapse, as debris chased him up nearby West Street.

“I just couldn’t believe that I was uninjured, that we made it. I think I was blessed, in a sense,” he said. He’d just celebrated his birthday Sept. 10.

Since Sept. 11, Merenda and his crew have been given everything from brownies and cookies to a Pringles can loaded with change from a 9-year-old.

The 25 firefighters in Merenda’s company all survived.

“I appreciate things more since then,” he said. “I spend more time living my life.”

Torrillo, who was listed missing for two days after the attacks, said he thought about his wife and four children as he lay injured.

“I never think of myself as a hero. It’s my job, and that’s why I’m a firefighter,” he said.

It may be hardest to see the skyline without the Twin Towers, Torrillo said.

“I spent 15 years of my life staring at the World Trade Center, and now it’s just gone. It’s a very tough thing to look at,” said Torrillo, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, as were his parents.

Merenda said he’s “psyched.” to spend some time in the parade Sunday.

And in an accent seemingly born near Ebbetts Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Torrillo exclaimed, “Holy Moses, this is going to be great!”

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