GREENSBORO — After already having snuck past the machine gun-toting soldiers, David Griffin Jr. knew it wasn’t a time to be silent.
Just 33 and already drawing attention with that strong Southern drawl in the heart of New York City, he spoke up as engineers at Ground Zero discussed how to remove an unstable curtain wall that threatened workers after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks left thousands dead and reduced 16 acres of Lower Manhattan to rubble.
What had been one of New York’s most iconic skyscrapers and a global marketplace was now a giant hole with indiscriminately scattered steel and cement.
Griffin, who learned the demolition business on his daddy’s knee back in Greensboro, had packed up his family — wife Donna wouldn’t let him go alone — into their Suburban and headed to New York just two days after terrorists hijacked four airplanes, flying two into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon. The fourth crashed in Pennsylvania with Greensboro flight attendant Sandy Bradshaw, who helped thwart the hijackers’ plans to hit another target, on board.
And as a group representing different layers of government contemplated safely bringing down the steel facade that remained above the rubble after both towers fell, they listened to Griffin, of D.H. Griffin Companies, which was more well known in the South.
CNN carried it live as Griffin’s team used a 500-ton crane to put workers 250 feet into the air, where they hooked cable to the section and pulled it down exactly the way he said it would.
Griffin would later be asked to oversee cleanup of the World Trade Center footprint, the largest demolition project in the world, although it would not be the most profitable for the company.
“It’s an art to what we do and you learn it by doing it,” Griffin said.
Two decades later and the D.H. Griffin Companies (previously the D.H. Griffin Wrecking Company) is more recognizable and has grown in ways almost unimaginable — such as having a robotics division — had the organization not been tested at Ground Zero.
Along with other experts from fields such as demolition, engineering and construction, the company helped turn Ground Zero into a site fit for a new beginning. But when earlier driving into a city smouldering in the distance, Griffin’s aim had been simpler.
“What he really wanted to do,” wife Donna said, “was help them find people alive.”
In one image, a bright red fire truck lies crumpled beneath twisted metal and crumbled concrete. In another, as an American flag flaps in the background, workers sift through debris, bucket by bucket, for clues — and, possibly, human remains — from the worst terrorist attack on American soil.
Griffin can close his eyes and see the images in real-time that are now competing with photos of the family and demolition projects on his office wall or tucked inside the pages of his scrapbooks.
“This is a window section of an airplane,” he said, pointing to a photo taken while sifting through debris and imagining when it had been intact. “People were sitting right there.”
Griffin shares stories and photos to highlight the toll on firemen, police officers, Port Authority workers — everyone who came to the site to help.
“He would never consider himself one of the heroes,” daughter Deven said, although she considers him her hero, “but I think his work helped families seeking closure.”
Griffin had been spellbound by what he saw on TV that terrible day — and how ordinary Americans took action.
“Maybe I can help,” he told his wife.
He packed up his hard hat and safety goggles.
“He felt like the Lord was pulling him there,” Donna Griffin said, “and he could not rest.”
Daughter Deven, their oldest and then a fifth-grader, had asked how people could be so cruel as the family gathered around the television. She is now an asset manager handling corporate real estate at the family business.
“I remember taking the trip and being nervous,” the now 30-year-old said. “It seemed like an adventure at first, but that sense of adventure went away when we got to New York.”
From New Jersey they could see the smoke, and it made the hair on the back of Griffin’s neck stand up. David III was just eight months old, and Dakota, the middle child, 8.
They found the World Trade Center had been fenced off blocks away, in all directions, and the perimeter patrolled by soldiers toting machine guns.
At 6 a.m. the next morning, in his hard hat and with his D.H. Griffin credentials, he passed through two security checkpoints.
He was turned away at a third because he didn’t have a special pass.
Griffin, whose parents, David Sr. and Marylene, had founded the family demolition business decades before, had come too far to stop.
“I think my father was a little afraid for us to go up there,” Griffin said. “And when we got there, I could see why.”
He was able to evade officers while they removed something from an American Red Cross vehicle.
The normally straight-laced Griffin said he looked at the men, looked at the opening and then looked at the men again before walking past the entry point.
“What I walked into,” he said, “I wasn’t prepared for.”
Even blocks away, just about every other window had been blown out of buildings. Dust covered the streets.
Griffin would stumble upon a meeting of construction workers, engineers and New York City staffers who were discussing how to take down the 27-story curtain wall that posed a danger to workers — one of the pressing concerns as bodies were still being recovered.
He decided to speak up.
“Every day we worked like we were going to find someone down there,” Griffin said of the early days. “It helped you do your job.”
After the wall came down, Griffin was entrusted with a quadrant.
Then he was asked to take over the whole project.
“This is what we do,” his father told him over the phone, “and if the Lord led you there, this is what you have to do.”
Working 16 to 18 hours a day and many 100-hour weeks, Griffin’s job was to figure out how to get rid of the debris without causing more damage as he worked with federal and city officials.
“They’re wanting to get into an area,” he said of constant meetings with emergency services workers, “and we’re trying to figure out how to get them in there.”
When families were escorted to a cordoned off section of the devastated area, he and other workers and rescuers would pause upon seeing the group and put their hard hats and helmets over their hearts to pay respect.
It was new territory for them all.
“Firemen said even like a really bad fire, you might have five or seven people die.” Griffin recalled. “But nobody on American soil has dealt with the loss of thousands of people. Nobody was emotionally prepared for that.”
Twenty days into the job, crews were still pulling out of the rubble smoldering, cherry-red steel.
“I felt like God’s hand was guiding us,” Griffin said.
They were they were working in rubble where the bodies of several Port Authority police officers were discovered.
“Psalm 23 becomes real. You walk through that valley,” said Rusty Griffin, a cousin and the company’s regional project manager who joined Griffin in New York days after.
Donna wanted to be there when her husband came home at night.
“The one thing I knew we were not going to do was separate,” Donna said.
Later, she bought bottled water and stocked it underneath the baby’s stroller, to give people cleaning dust from the streets. The few times she went onto the site, after her husband had the proper credentials, those she passed would desperately thrust pictures her way.
“You had people pulling on your clothes, showing you pictures — ‘Did you find them? Did you find them?’ they would ask,” Donna Griffin said. “Your heart broke for them.”
They took the children with them to see the devastation, her husband said.
“People said, ‘You shouldn’t have taken them down there,’” Griffen said. “I’m raising my kids that we don’t live in a bubble and that people are not always nice.”
Donna and the children initially came back to Greensboro after a few days but would go back and even spend Christmas there. After living out of a hotel for a month, Griffin was later given an apartment by the city.
Those working at the site became like family. Griffin was photographed with former Vice President Dick Cheney in one frame and a smiling then-New York Mayor Rudy Guliani in another. Celebrities like Jamie Lee Curtis and Robert De Niro brought food and drinks — but also attention to the work and the need for Americans to pull together.
Curtis sent the Griffin kids toys for several Christmases after.
A YouTube video (at around 1 minute and 27 seconds) shows a lighter moment between Griffin and other officials at Ground Zero while attempting to bring down the eight-story World Trade Center Building 6, a shorter structure damaged beyond repair when the North Tower fell. Griffin’s crew had planned to bring down the building, the last to be felled, with cables.
As the demolition begins, an official bets him a dollar that it won’t be down by a specific time.
Griffin is explaining on camera that he’s using the cables to rock the building back and forth — “The more you shake it, the more it goes into failure,” Griffin said.
The bottom floor goes, and then the entire structure comes tumbling down — without using dynamite.
“Dan, I’ll take my dollar,” he says to the man, who hands him the bill as they and those standing around them share a laugh. “It’s nice doing business with you.”
When Griffin and his team left the site about eight months after work began, the biggest demolition job in the world had, by then, been reduced mostly to trucking away debris.
The billion-dollar cleanup of 1.7 million tons of debris was nine months ahead of schedule and saved the city $400 million.
“Your knowledge of construction demolition, environmental hazards, metals recycling and your ability to work with and coordinate so many different personalities/agencies added immeasurable value to the effort at hand,” Michael Burton, the former executive deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Design and Construction, wrote in a letter in 2003.
While away, Griffin missed son David III’s first steps.
So when the high-profile closing ceremony at Ground Zero fell on the same day as the annual Wesleyan Christian Academy school talent show, it wasn’t a hard choice.
He even supplied then-8-year-old Dakota and her partner one-of-a-kind props — a picture he took with singer Lee Greenwood and other pictures from the site. It’s Greenwood’s song, “God Bless the USA,” that Dakota had been practicing for weeks with sister Deven, then 11, in the background, hoisting a flag.
A part of him wanted to be there with all the other guys who were there from the beginning, just for one last goodbye.
“I told him there would be another talent show the next year,” Donna said. “He said, ‘Nope, I’m not going.’”
A self-described workaholic who has gotten better, he began taking more time off to spend with his family.
Griffin, awaiting his first grandchild from Deven, is now the president of the company, with his father’s retirement. His mother, Marylene, died in 2012.
The walls of his office are also covered with praise the company has received from industry publications. There’s also the Crystal Award, the highest honor given by the Associated General Contractors, for “services under the most difficult circumstances.’
Griffin sounds more patriotic than boastful when he speaks of the recognition.
“We had a job to do, and we had extra motivation to do it well,’’ Griffin said.
Griffin said the company had been in the top 30 demolition groups in the world, having demolished 12,000 buildings before the Sept. 11 attacks, including the Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, former home of the Atlanta Braves and Falcons. In 2006, it demolished the 6 million-square-foot Pillowtex industrial site in Kannapolis, considered one of the largest commercial demolition projects in the world.
“It was the largest demolition project that had ever been done in American history, so people who were wondering if we were qualified to take on a project, it would have been kind of hard for them to say we were not qualified,” Griffin said of the World Trade Center project.
He has told the story of working at Ground Zero countless times with groups big and small, but stopped because he didn’t like turning people down while still running a company. Both he and cousin Rusty were interviewed for the book, “City in the Sky: The Rise and Fall of the World Trade Center.”
While a number of deaths have been connected to conditions at Ground Zero, Griffin and his crew remain healthy. They had spent more time on the site than any other company and none of his employees became ill although others have reported lung and respiratory problems.
“We weren’t 10 blocks up the street,” Griffin said. “We were in the pit every day.”
Griffin didn’t wear his respirator mask all the time because they had to have clear communication because someone could die or be injured because of the heavy equipment and number of people working in the same location.
“All our people are OK, knock on wood,” Griffin said.
Griffin brought back a section of a steel beam which now sits at the company’s scrapyard on Hilltop Road.
He also gave away small crosses fashioned from other pieces of steel.
Griffin has become great friends with some of the people he got to know, including one of the chief engineers who started a company that Griffin has partnered with on projects.
Years later, Phil Bradshaw, Sandy’s husband, was the chief pilot for company airplanes. They became good friends.
Sometimes, Bradshaw brought his and Sandy’s kids along and the children all traveled together.
“Phil’s done a great job and he’s a great human being,” Griffin said.
Griffin, who knows just where things toppled after the towers fell, appreciates what has taken place since.
“I’m glad they built back,” Griffin said, “because I’m of the belief that when you get knocked down, you get back up.”
Contact Nancy McLaughlin at 336-373-7049 and follow @nmclaughlinNR on Twitter.