Two days after the Sept. 11 attacks, David Griffin Jr. packed his wife and three young kids into their Suburban and drove from Greensboro to New York to see if there was anything he could do to help.
He’d only been to New York once before – and, not really knowing what to expect, he brought only a hard hat and work boots.
Griffin’s family business, D.H. Griffin Wrecking Co. Inc., wound up being hired as the lead demolition contractor clearing the rubble from the site, a job that kept the company there for nearly 19 months.
D.H. Griffin’s name is splashed across heavy equipment on seven different sites right now in Charlotte, including the clearing of the old Charlotte Observer site on South Tryon. They also spent three years clearing rubble at the old Pillowtex mill site in Kannapolis to make way for the NC Research Campus, which opened in 2008.
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But the biggest job in the Greensboro company’s history remains the one 15 years ago at the World Trade Center.
For Griffin, the company’s president who was just 33 at the time, the project was a somber one that gave him a life perspective he’s reminded of on every anniversary.
“Even though you were working on the largest project of your career, you couldn’t celebrate. That’s a tough one to figure out. You’re not going to go out, have dinner and say ‘I just pulled off something really great,’” Griffin says.
“It wasn’t just a construction site. Nobody in American history had ever dealt with anything like what we were doing.”
Loss of lives
Hours after arriving in New York, Griffin sneaked past the barricades onto Ground Zero on Friday morning, Sept. 14, without any kind of an official pass. He started offering some basic recommendations, and people started listening. By the next day, he was hired on as a lead consultant.
The biggest contribution the company made, Griffin says, was figuring out how to remove the curtain wall of Tower Two, which was the 27-story, 8,000-ton wall still standing after the attacks. Griffin’s strategy, he says, saved the city millions of dollars.
He describes the project as a 24/7-job. At any given time, there were about 2,500 workers out during the daytime, and another 1,500 out at night.
The D.H. Griffin crews stayed in a midtown hotel for the first month and a half, then rented apartments a few blocks from the site for the remaining 17 months, Griffin says. He was manager onsite for seven and a half months, shuttling back and forth to Greensboro to check in on his wife, two daughters, then 10 and 8 years old, and son, who was 8 months old at the time of the attacks.
For the first month or so, Griffin says, the job demanded 100-hour work weeks. It “slowed” to about 90 hours the second month, then tapered off to 80 from then on out.
The crews set up a viewing area for family members and loved ones to stop by during the project. Having that kind of visual reminder close by added a personal element that Griffin says reminded him of how sacred was the ground his crews were working on.
“Just trying to comprehend the overall tragedy and loss of lives that we were dealing with ... was hard,” Griffin says.
A magician uptown
D.H. Griffin is currently working on 105 projects in 12 southeastern states, including the Observer site, which Griffin won’t comment on because it’s ongoing. Griffin’s father David, 77, remains CEO of the company he founded in 1959.
David Griffin Jr.’s first job at his father’s company was working in the scrap yard in Greensboro.
His first demolition job, however, was when he was 20, back in 1988. Griffin oversaw the implosion and cleanup of the old Hotel Charlotte on West Trade Street, where magician David Copperfield filmed a TV special that showed him escaping a chained vault inside the building minutes before it crumbled into itself.
But the World Trade Center project dwarfs the magic and historic fanfare of that first job. As the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaches, Griffin says he’s reminded of an important lesson of keeping perspective.
“It reminds me how thankful I am that I have my health and my family, and it reminds me how proud I am to be an American,” Griffin says.