NYC Subway Motorman Reflects On 9/11 — The Day He Was Thrust Into Heroic Role

10 Years Later Joe Irizarry Is Still Recovering Mentally From Horror Of That Day

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Over the past decade we have heard countless stories about acts of heroism during the 9/11 terror attacks.

But here’s one you probably never heard about. It’s the untold story of a brave motorman and his selfless act that saved hundreds of lives, reports CBS 2’s Hazel Sanchez.

When we think about the heroes of 9/11 we often think of firefighters, police and first responders. But we have the story of an underground hero that risked his life on the rails to save hundreds of straphangers.

At 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, motorman Joe Irizarry was driving an “R” train into the Cortlandt Street subway stop in the shadow of the World Trade Center towers. Seconds later the first plane hit.

Irizarry said he knew something was terribly wrong.

“It actually shook my train,” Irizarry said.

Normally Irizarry would keep the train doors open no more than 30 seconds, but on that day he kept them open for several minutes, taking on as many passengers the train could hold as toxic dust and debris showered over lower Manhattan.

“The smoke was coming down so I had no idea what was going on in the streets. I just wanted to make sure the people were safe,” Irizarry said.

Irizarry stayed as long as he could and then floored it out of the station.

“When we arrived at Continental Avenue I went toward the crew room and….and that’s when I heard the first tower had fallen,” Irizarry said.

Only then did he realize what he and his passengers narrowly escaped.

Linda DeSilvio was onboard that train and said she’ll never forget Irizarry’s bravery.

“He really kept everybody under control and in charge. Joe was … you know … the brick there,” DeSilvio said.

A decade later, DeSilvio reunited with the heroic motorman who steered her and countless passengers to safety.

The impact of that tragic day still sticks with them.

“I still get welled up when I see you,” DeSilvio told Irizarry.

“I did my job just like … just like the police officers, just like the firemen, just like the EMTs, just like the people in the towers just across the street did,” Irizarry said. “I got to live, and all those people that perished. Why am I the lucky one? You know? God has a reason for everything, but you just have to accept it.”

Getting past that day has not been easy for Irizarry. He now suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. Last summer he took disability retirement and walked away from his job. Irizarry said the attacks left him traumatized after losing several close friends that were volunteer firefighters and instructors at the Nassau County Fire Service Academy.

Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below.

More from Hazel Sanchez
  • Nicole

    I am Joes daughter and on that day I had no way to contact my father and was in fear that I would never see my father again. I do consider him a hero for what he did even though he says he was “just doing his job” he saved NUMEROUS peoples lives that day. And if it wasnt for his decision that day many people could have lost their lives.

  • brendatobias

    I really do believe we have enough room in our hearts and minds to thank all who did incredibly things that day (and days that followed) I wrote more on that here:

  • little irizarry

    im sorry but if you all knew anything and im talking about the arrogant people saying it doesnt deserve disability or anything like that….. it was his choice to stay or go he chose to stay and get people on the train and left no one behind thats what you people arent thinking about or saying… or how about the fact he did one hell of a job … no one hears about the people of the mta and they did stuff as well as everyone else that day….. i have alot or respect for my father after that day and him not pulling away and leaving anyone behind maybe you guys should respect that to and not make arrogant comments about it because it effected all….

  • carol

    its good he kept the doors open longer but I don’t think this job compares to what the firemen and policemen did, and I also find it hard to believe that it qualifies for disability for stress, come on !

    “I did my job just like … just like the police officers, just like the firemen, just like the EMTs, just like the people in the towers just across the street did,” Irizarry said.

    • Nicole

      you are in ignorant person you dont know what my father went through who are you to say that he doesnt deserve disability??? were you there that day? did u save someones life? did you know that January after 9/11 someone comitted suicide infront of his train? You know nothing about my father and what you went through so who are you to say anything???

  • Ed

    The article reads “Normally Irizarry would keep the train doors open no more than 30 seconds, but on that day he kept them open for several minutes…” In fact, the motorman normally has nothing to do with how long the doors stay open. He would have had to tell the conductor to delay closing the doors. Just sloppy reporting which, again, ignore the possible role of the train’s conductor (maybe it was he who made the judgment call). Also, the R train never operates with OPTO in the daytime (not sure about midnights). Finally, I used quotes around “drives” because it’s not literally what the motorman does.

  • Eduardo

    …perhaps the news story writer does not ride the subways enought to know who does what.
    …perhaps the train was operating under OPTO.
    …or perhaps the Conductor was overlooked for more colorful reasons.

  • bullett

    Nice story, but the only comment that I would like to add, one does not drive a train. One operates a train, it (train) rides on rails, so therefore there is no steering wheel, or steering required. Get it?

  • give it a break

    Can’t you people ever find good in anything someone does. Do you always have to question everything..This man was driving the train so he made the ultimate decision. Who cares at least he was smart enough to save lives. WHAT DID YOU DO THAT DAY?

  • Stu

    Unlike a railroad where the conductor is in charge, the train operator (aka motorman) is in charge on NYC subway trains. He is the one who would be in contact with “Central Control” and would instruct the conductor to keep the doors open if he felt it was necessary. I do agree, however, that the conductor probably played a role in this decision and should have been included in this report.

  • Joe Schmo

    Conductor can’t move the train, so that decision ultimately goes to the operator I guess.

  • Ed

    It is unfortunately a common error to ascribe to a subway motorman the task of operating the train’s doors, just as it is wrong to call the train operator a conductor. The motorman “drives” the train; the conductor operates the doors and normally maintains verbal communication with the passengers. Whose decision was it to keep the doors open? Mr. Irizarry’s or the conductor’s – or, as is more likely, was it a joint decision? If so, how about giving credit to the train’s conductor as well?

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