Personal reflections on a September 11th (9/11) hero

Here is why I will always remember.

Originally posted on 11 September 2006 at Terra Sigillata on ScienceBlogs.

wtcgriff.jpg

Let me tell you about John Michael Griffin, Jr.

Griff, as he was known in high school, was a friend of mine.

Late in the first half of our lives, he stood up for me physically and philosophically, for being a science geek. John’s endorsement was the first time I was ever deemed cool for wanting to be a scientist.

Griff died an engineer and hero in the collapse of one of the World Trade Center towers five [nine] years ago today.

We lost touch almost twenty years before, but his kindness and friendship formed not only one of the cornerstones of the scientific life I have today, but in the person and father I have become as well.

—–

At a northern New Jersey Catholic high school in a predominantly Irish town, being a gangly Polish boy from two towns over was not the formula to cultivate one’s popularity or self-preservation.

Throwing the curve in biology and chemistry classes didn’t help either, nor did being a David Bowie fan in a place where Bruce Springsteen was as revered as St. Patrick. That’s probably where the nickname, “Zowie,” came from – the name of the glam rocker’s first child.

Worse, I had skipped a grade in elementary school, and being a year behind physically was not compatible with self-preservation during high school gym class.

But, it was a very simple gesture, sometime in junior year, when one of the packs of scoundrels had me cornered, slamming me against the wall and throwing my books down the hallway. I believe that the offense was that our biology teacher had taken to buying me a Pepsi everytime I scored 100 on one of his exams, and I had been enjoying yet another one.

John, already well on his way to his adult height of 6′ 7″ or 6′ 8″, stepped in and said, “Hey, lay off of Zowie. He’s goin’ places.” And with that, the beatings stopped.

I didn’t play sports, at least not any of the ones offered by our school. At that time, soccer hadn’t taken off in the States but I was a huge player and had met John at Giants Stadium in the NJ Meadowlands where I had season tickets (Section 113, row 7, seat 26) for the relocated New York Cosmos. At just $4 a ticket for kids 16 and under, I could afford season tickets to see some of the greatest international soccer stars of the late 20th century: Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, Italy’s Giorgio Chinaglia, Yugoslavia’s Vladislav Bogiçeviç, and, of course, Brazil’s great Pelé.

All accounts of John as an adult include his devotion to the Giants, NY Rangers, and NY Yankees, but few recall those soccer days. John’s family were long-time Giants season ticket holders and probably got their Cosmos season tickets three rows behind me as some sort of promotional giveaway. I recall that John was surprised that a science dork such as I would be cool enough to know about soccer and come to games myself, my father dropping me off outside the gates so he could go home and watch his beloved football games.

But, we Jersey boys loved soccer at a school where American football and basketball reigned supreme. Many Saturday and Sunday afternoons were spent at the massive stadium during soccer’s American heyday of the late 1970s, with crowds of 50,000 – 75,000 that have yet to be matched today.

—–

Among John’s gifts was the ability to make anything fun and to make anyone laugh. I recall sitting with him in a ski lodge in Amsterdam, NY, as I was recovering from frostbite during an ill-prepared class trip ski weekend. He pulled me into an imaginary board game with a napkin dispenser, where he pretended each napkin contained a message as to how to proceed during each turn. We looked at each other in horror when the waitress came unannounced and cleared our table of the napkins.

As a teenager, John was a physical caricature, handsome but a goof, self-effacing but self-confident, and had a clever and caustic wit, both of which he carried into adult professional life and fatherhood. His 15 Sept 2001 missing notice in the Bergen (NJ) Record noted that schoolkids called him, “Barney,” to reflect how they flocked to his presence.

No one was safe from John’s good-hearted and bombastic comedy routines. My father was nicknamed, “Groucho,” by John due to the resemblance of his thick mustache to that of the 1930′s comedian – John would burst spontaneously into seemingly classic Marx Brothers riffs, but with the content imitating my father carrying on about some printing press mishap.

From Class of 1981, St. Mary's High School, Rutherford, NJ: Clockwise from John with cap in the foreground: Kevin Tormey, Joe McGuire, Matt DiTomasso, Walter Marlowe (valedictorian), Benn O'Hara. Taken at my boyhood home in Wallington on the afternoon between Communion breakfast and evening graduation ceremonies.

My last remembrances of John are half a life away, from the impromptu high school graduation party he called at my house to his pride at finishing his engineering degree and managing facilities for a million-square foot building in Manhattan.

Perhaps he protected me as a kid because he knew that way deep down, he was destined to become an engineering geek himself. And a hero, a much bigger hero, in protecting the lives of others in a very real way.

—–

On the glorious fall morning of 11 Sept 2001, I was fixing coffee for my wife who had been sleeping in when the newsreader on my pager announced that a jet had struck the south tower of the World Trade Center.

I had missed my recent 20-year high school reunion and had not known that John had only months before been appointed director of operations at the WTC by Larry Silverstein’s, Silverstein Properties.

I did not learn until two weeks later that John had facilitated the escape of dozens of workers, handing out wet towels so people could breathe on their way down the stairs. In the 102 Minutes book by New York Times writers Jim Lynch and Kevin Flynn, John is immortalized in the corroborated account of the elevator rescue of 72-year-old Port Authority construction inspector, Tony Savas.

When he returned to 78, Greg Trapp saw a group of three Port Authority employees at work on the doors to the elevator where Tony Savas, a seventy-two-year-old structural inspector, was trapped. Trapp peered into the small gap and saw him, a man with thinning white hair, seemingly serene. One of the workers grabbed a metal easel, wedging the legs into the opening, trying to spread the doors from the bottom, where they seemed to have the greatest leverage. But their efforts had the opposite effect at the top of the doors, which seemed to pinch tighter.

At that moment, John Griffin, who had recently started as the trade center’s director of operations, came over to the elevator bank. At six feet, eight inches tall, Griffin had no problem reaching the top of the door to apply pressure as the others pushed from the bottom. The doors popped apart. Out came Savas, who seemed surprised to find Griffin, his new boss, involved in the rescue. Savas seemed exhilarated, possessed of a sudden burst of energy, rubbing his hands together, or so it seemed to Trapp.

“Okay,” Savas said. “What do you need me to do?”

One of the Port Authority workers shook his head. “We just got you out-you need to leave the building.”

No, Savas insisted. He wanted to help. “I’ve got a second wind.”

John and Mr. Savas stayed behind.

John’s wife, June, sweetheart of the class behind us, was quoted in John’s NYT, Portraits of Grief:

“He was at the back of about 30 people they were evacuating,” his wife, June Griffin, related from the accounts of survivors. “He had been in fires before — he should have gotten out.”

Mrs. Griffin speculated that her husband, instead of running for the exits, headed for the fire control center, where his training as a fire safety officer would have directed him. “He was an engineer,” Mrs. Griffin said. “He must have thought, ‘Buildings don’t just fall down.’”

John also left two daughters, both now teenagers, his parents, a younger brother and older sister, and literally hundreds of friends.

Not just any friends, either – anyone who knew John still says that when he talked with you, it was as though you were the most important person in the world.

—–

Leaving New Jersey in the mid-1980s and running on the tenure-track treadmill 1,600 miles away caused me to stop living life and lose track of a great many friends. I am deeply saddened not to have known John as an adult, a devoted husband and, by all accounts, a remarkable father.

Since John’s death, we’ve all found a little more time in our schedules to make time for one another. As the father of a little girl conceived in the months after the terrorist attacks, I try to respect June’s privacy and just send little gifts for the girls every so often. I cannot imagine how they and nearly 3,000 other families deal privately with the most public of tragedies.

I finally worked up the guts to go to Ground Zero [four years and] two months ago for the first time. Despite all the bickering about what the memorial should look like, there is a small memorial area set up in the interim. John’s name sits at the top of one column of names on the placards commemorating those lost.

He’ll always be at the top of my list.

John's wife, June, put up this as her Facebook profile photo this year.

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22 Responses to Personal reflections on a September 11th (9/11) hero

  1. Samantha says:

    there you go again, making me want to cry. :p

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  3. Kathleen (Wargacki) Lynch says:

    wow! can’t quite find anything else to say…

  4. David Kroll says:

    Thanks, Kath. I made a few really good friends after my folks took me out of Wallington and sent me to St. Mary’s.

    Turns out that Sandi was just down in Rutherford on Friday night because John was named a distinguished alum at St. Mary’s. They had a nice dinner at the Fiesta and also inducted my first homeroom teacher (and science teacher). I had a plane ticket but then learned that I had to stay in Durham to hand out diplomas at our two university graduation ceremonies. Sandi posted pictures on Facebook if you’re interested.

  5. John Messineo says:

    What a fabulous and well written story and a tribute to one who appears to have been a very special person. I watched those towers fall from a roof job I was working in Jersey City. A day I will never soon forget. Your writing is so good David, and I can’t tell you enough how proud I am to have grown up with you and to see what you have become.

  6. David Kroll says:

    Thanks, John – I really appreciate the fact that you read. I’ve been doing this for about five years and it’s a really good outlet for all kinds of things, scientific and not-so-scientific. Griff was a great guy. I was in North Carolina then and can’t imagine what it must have been like to be up home and see the towers no longer there. I still can’t believe it ten years later.

  7. Tim Ryan says:

    Dave,

    This is an outstanding tribute to Griff!!! Very well written. I can tell its from the heart. You brought back fond memories.

    Thank you,

    Tim Ryan (“TR”)

  8. Theresa Verhaalen says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this. John was my cousin, and we have so many good and goofy memories of him. The last time I saw him before 9-11 was at my wedding in March of that year. He’s a special guy, and was very loved by our family, especially my late father. My dad went down to the site the day after it happened because he just couldn’t bear in his mind that John was missing. He helped some of the workers put debris in a truck, and said prayers.
    But knowing the beautiful legacy this man has left has inspired me and has made me examine my own mark on the world and lives of others.

  9. Sally says:

    I am also from Wallington, and a ’91 graduate of St. Mary’s. 4 of my 5 older siblings also are graduates of SM; and some knew John. Thank you for writing such a beautiful article about him. He is a true American hero.

  10. Al Sodaro says:

    Well done Dave! You are spot on!!

  11. David Kroll says:

    Hey, TR! So great to hear from you. Thanks for reading!

    Indeed, we had many happy times. He was a character as a kid and my only regret is not knowing him better after the college years. Hope to see you soon.

  12. David Kroll says:

    Theresa, what a lovely and bittersweet story. My condolences on the passing of your father as well. I think that the way we have all responded to this tragedy and its aftermath has lessons for us all. I examine my own life every day I walk around the car and see my Griff license plate. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

  13. David Kroll says:

    Yup, lots of us Wallington kids at St. Mary’s, eh?

    I just simply had to write this article back on the 5th anniversary. I was sitting in a hotel room in DC with wife and then-toddler with the Pentagon also on my mind. He was a truly special guy who it seemed grew only more special over time. And, yes, truly a hero.

  14. David Kroll says:

    Thanks, Al. Definitely seems like yesterday. Hope to see you soon. You going to the 30th reunion?

  15. Denise Bianchi-Frontin says:

    Great piece Dave. He was an awesome guy with a gigantic heart. I, too, saw the attack from my office in Secaucus but was not aware at the time of Griff’s presence in the towers. It was a truly heartbreaking, devastating day. I have no idea how June had the strength to put one foot after the other following that day, let alone raise two girls. She is a hero as well.

  16. Dennis Van Dyk says:

    Thanks David for a well written piece about John,I have been working with June on starting a scholarship in John’s name at SM for any out going senior who will go to college for business or engineering,we ‘Must’ keep his name known for what he did that day was heroic and future generations must know who ‘Griff’ WAS!!

  17. David Kroll says:

    Fabulous, Dennis! It was sooo great to see you at our 30th anniversary and I’ll do whatever I can to make sure that we remember John for the rest of our lives in the form of the scholarship. As soon as you have all the materials together, just let me know. I’ll be sure to post everything in time for next year’s remembrance. You’re doing great work on behalf of the memory of our old friend. Thank you for everything!

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  19. Marybeth Ryan says:

    David – what a beautiful memorial to John. I am reading this on Sept. 11, 12 years to the day. I love what you wrote – I went to HS with John, although he was a few years behind me. I remember him. Such a beautifully written tribute. John clearly impacted your life. And you are a good friend to him to memorialize him with your words. God bless.

  20. David Kroll says:

    Marybeth, thank you so much for your kind words. I can’t recall which Ryan family you’re from but T.R. was in our class.

    I wrote this originally for the 5th anniversary but I always repost it wherever I am blogging most actively. And I’m not the only one remembering him: the entire Class of 1981 will be assembling at St. Mary’s gym this Friday night (9/20) for the “Griff Rocks On” fundraiser. I think it’s sold out. We’re all trying to honor him in our own ways. Thank you so much for coming by to read!

  21. Mary Ellen Fecanin says:

    Dave, I have JUST read your beaautiful tribute to Griff! You really captured his essence! I have told the “Napkins Game” story many times! I played it w/John on our junior class trip to Stowe, VT. So, in fact, I may have invented it!! I remember you had to spin the napkin holder! He was the best!

  22. David Kroll says:

    Mary Ellen, that’s awesome! I had no idea – funny what comes up when you share these stories. Indeed, you had to spin the napkin holder. I’ll be sure to credit you in future years when I repost this remembrance. We’re so lucky to have been part of each others’ lives.