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D.H. Griffin Looks Back at 9/11 Efforts

Tue October 11, 2011 - Northeast Edition
Giles Lambertson

By Giles Lambertson


Not every day does a visitor to an unprecedented public disaster show up to volunteer with recovery efforts and almost immediately become de facto manager of the project. But the eleventh day of September 2001 was not just any day in New York City.

That day the city became the target of coordinated terrorist attacks that quickly spread to Washington, D.C. After an airliner was intentionally crashed into each of the World Trade City towers in New York City — with a third flown into the Pentagon in Washington and a fourth into the ground before it could hit another Washington target — the world in general, and America in particular, was stunned.

David H. Griffin Jr. wasn’t stunned for long.

Two days after the towers fell, with concrete dust still covering lower Manhattan and authorities scrambling to ward off feared additional attacks, Griffin drove with his wife and children to New York from his home in Greensboro, N.C. His mission was to help.

Griffin took to the immense clean-up project with more than good citizenship, which virtually everyone in America was feeling at that moment. Cynicism and partisanship had been quickly shelved in those post-attack days. American flags flew everywhere and there was no shortage of volunteer help available.

But Griffin also was vice president of a family firm, D.H. Griffin Wrecking Company, which in 2001 had been around for more than 40 years. He knew demolition and he knew he wanted to put himself in a position to help New York City begin to shake off the effects of its catastrophic structural collapse.

Ten years later, Griffin looks back on the days that followed his arrival in New York City with the same down-to-earth, pragmatic calm that stood him in good stead in the days of national panic. He declines to talk about it at length, embellishes nothing in the telling, and seems unchanged by the heady experience of being a major player in NYC recovery efforts while the whole world watched. He received no special public honors for his work, nor is his name engraved on plaques around the city. He likes that just fine.

“The heroes were the firemen and rescue responders who worked and died that day,” he said quietly from his office in Greensboro almost precisely a decade after his fateful drive to New York. “They’re the ones who deserve the honors.”

Griffin’s story, however, deserves recalling, heroic or not, because it is about construction and demolition expertise, personal gumption and character. It also is about a man from the rural South who had the chutzpah to take on New Yorkers on their own concrete-and-asphalt turf and win their respect.

“They called us all kinds of names,” a North Carolina newspaper quoted Griffin telling some Kiwanis club members the year after the towers fell. He and a few D.H. Griffin crew members working with him were rudely, if teasingly, stereotyped. “They thought for sure I was a redneck from North Carolina. They called us the Clampetts and asked if we sat around and played banjos on our porches.”


The day Griffin arrived in New York City, he parked his wife and children in a hotel, put on a hardhat and walked toward the debris-laden site. To get there, he had to cross two barricaded lines. The first line, five blocks from the scene, was unguarded and he just walked through it without challenge.

At the second barricaded line a block farther on, police and National Guardsmen patrolled. Griffin looked wistfully beyond them toward the destruction. The serendipitous arrival of a Salvation Army donut truck at that moment distracted the armed guards, and Griffin took a deep breath, crossed through, and walked on ahead. This may have been the only 2001 security failure that no one rues today.

Griffin was appalled by what he saw at the scene, including piles of debris 50 ft. (15 m) high. He walked over to where various emergency department employees were working through 15-ft. (4.5 m) high mounds of debris in the street, the outer edge of the remains of one of the towers.

At one point, the workers labored in the shadow of an upright steel girder that posed a threat to their safety, and discussion began about how to remove it. Griffin spoke up, revealing a Southern accent notably different from everyone else on the site as well as evident knowledge of how to proceed. People turned to him wondering who the heck he was.

It was the beginning of a general recognition of Griffin’s demolition expertise. Engineers on site began to consult with him, though he was not yet deemed to be an authority: It took two full days for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to put him in charge of demolition — not bad for a “redneck.”

General respect for his professional judgment was still to come, however. It arrived about two weeks later when on-site debate ensued about removal of a steel curtain wall that stood shakily 12 stories high. Contractors wanted to call in cranes, hoist workers with torches, and cut the structure apart where it stood. Griffin and his company workmates, including his cousin Rusty Griffin, thought the crane approach too time-consuming and unsafe.

As skeptics watched, Griffin simply attached cables to the huge upright shard and pulled it back and forth till it toppled. In less than an hour, the structure was down and being cut apart safely on the ground.

“Getting that curtain wall down saved millions of dollars,” Griffin said. “There wasn’t anyone else around to make such decisions. We had the ability to make the decision and to move on.”

The decision cemented his reputation as a decisive leader, a label he had begun to earn a few days earlier when he had summarily fired a contractor that wasn’t fulfilling the terms of its contract. Griffin was subsequently told he had fired a Mafia-front company, which he admits concerned him for a few days.

Working from a trailer parked a block from the site, Griffin and other clean-up personnel settled into a 24-hour-a-day, 7-days-a-week removal process. His quarters improved in a few months. His office was moved to the American Express Tower, also known as the Three World Financial Center, after it was repaired, having been heavily damaged by the falling towers.

However, his work schedule didn’t change much. Many 100-hour weeks were recorded by Griffin along with everyone else working there. Griffin said he was away from the site 19 days in 8 months.

“It was stressful,” he said. “It was tough, tiring in many ways.”

Looking Back

Griffin smoothly transitioned back to work with the family company after the twin-tower clean-up was completed in 2002 — four months ahead of schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars under budget. His was a successful stewardship by just about any yardstick, and at the end of it, Griffin simply resumed work at D.H. Griffin Wrecking. In 2009, the company was listed by Demolition & Recycling International as the 6th largest demolition / recycling company in the world.

Today, David H. Griffin Jr. is president of the companies, which includes affiliated new construction, environmental, site preparation and general contracting divisions. Its corporate office still is in Greensboro, but the company operates from offices in eight states from Virginia to Texas. Griffin’s father who founded the company still puts in a full day and is, Griffin said, “the real boss.”

What Griffin took away from the New York City experience was many memories, some of which he obviously is reticent to talk about. He said it seems like it happened three or four years ago, not 10 years.

“It has gone fast.”

Memories aside, Griffin talks mostly about the excruciating demands placed upon everyone working the project — physical, emotional, and spiritual — as well as the relationships forged.

“It was a lot of pressure and the stakes were as high as they get,” he said. “It was pretty much a baptism by fire. Looking back, I learned an awful lot. I was hoeing a rough row, but I had a lot of good, smart people working with me.”

Construction equipment called in to dismantle, separate, load and haul away the mountains of fallen-building debris was not exotic at all — mostly cranes, heavy dump trucks and excavators with grapple attachments because the steel girding was too large for shearing and had to be torched apart. No special machinery was required and, he added, nothing that has come on the market since 2001 would have been used instead. The project was, he suggested, just another demolition job but on a horrifically large scale.

“It was,” Griffin observed, “the super bowl of the demolition industry.”

Griffin also came away with renewed confidence about running projects and crews.

“I learned some new management skills,” he said, “what with being involved with 28 different agencies and all the maneuvering and figuring out how to work though the different agencies. There were so many moving parts and you had to tiptoe around to get what we wanted. Now when I’m working with only three agencies, it feels like a cakewalk.”

He said he learned some more things about how to work with people.

“There was so much emotion, so I learned some new negotiating skills.”

His straight-forward approach to demolition problems, which landed him the management position, continued to operate for the duration of the project.

“We would make a plan and we would move forward,” he recalled of the work days. “I’d say, ’You can’t talk it down. You can only study something so long. You ain’t going to talk it down.’ So we would make a plan and implement it and go.”

Griffin said that “a lot of things we learned in New York, we use now on other sites.” There are many opportunities to do so: The D.H. Griffin Companies network has 1,000 employees and a 600-piece equipment fleet. The company annually produces more than $400 million in project revenue.

Just One Regret

Griffin cradles in his memory some scenes and memories that he doesn’t talk about, the demolition site also being the death site of nearly 3,000 people. The debris consisted of more than fractured bricks and mangled steel.

Yet as a management exercise and project, cleaning up the acres and acres of fallen buildings, crushed cars and destroyed infrastructure was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Satisfyingly, he could chalk it up as a professional success.

As a token of the clean-up, Griffin carried back to Greensboro on a flatbed truck a piece of one of the core beams of a fallen tower. His only regret, Griffin said, is that he didn’t salvage a few more pieces of the iconic buildings.

“I wish I had saved more steel,” he said. “Through the years, I have had a lot of requests from fire departments for steel to be used in memorials. At the 10th anniversary, we gave away about 50 pieces.”

He spent the 10th anniversary in Greensboro, incidentally, participating in a couple of 9/11 events in the community, far away from the ceremonies in New York City. In fact, he has been back to NYC just 10 times during the decade since he worked there, and not at all in the last four or five years. To be in the proximity of the disaster site, now a commemorative site, evidently is not something he needs in order to be reminded of the tragic event itself and of his involvement in the desperate scramble to clean it up.

“Remembering the event just makes me appreciate what I have,” he said, cutting short the interview to return to work. “Every one of the people who died that day was just doing his job. That’s all. No different from me and you.” CEG

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