LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT JOHN MICHAEL GRIFFIN, JR.
Griff, as he was known in high school, was a friend of mine.
In fact, late in the first half of our lives, he stood up for me physically and philosophically, for being a science geek. Truth is, John’s endorsement was the first time I was ever deemed cool for wanting to be a scientist.
It is also five years ago today, that Griff died an engineer and a hero in the collapse of one of the World Trade Center towers.
We lost touch almost twenty years before, but his kindness and generosity formed not only a cornerstone of the scientific life I have today, but resonates 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. Excelling and 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 revered. That’s probably where my 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-defense during high school gym class.
So, it was sometime in junior year, when scoundrels had me cornered and slammed against the wall, books thrown down the hallway, that a simple gesture saved me. 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.
John and I were soccer fans. At that time, soccer hadn’t taken off in the States but I was a huge player and had met John at Giants Stadium where I had season tickets (Section 113, row 7, seat 26) for the relocated New York Cosmos. At just $4 a ticket, I could afford a season’s pass 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 Bogićević;, and, of course, Brazil’s Pelé.
John’s family were long-time Giants season ticket holders and probably got their Cosmos season tickets (three rows behind me) through some sort of promotional giveaway. I recall that John was surprised that a science dork like myself would be cool enough to come to soccer games alone – my father dropping me off outside the gates so he could go home and watch his beloved football on TV. But we Jersey boys did love soccer, even though we were 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, when crowds would reach 50,000 – 75,000 strong.
John had a gift 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.
John was a physical caricature, handsome but goofy, self-effacing but self-confident, and possessed of a clever and caustic wit, which he carried into professional life and fatherhood. No one was safe from John’s good-hearted and bombastic comedy routines.
Now, my memories of John seem 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, himself, was destined to become an engineering geek. As well as the hero, 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 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.
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 book 102 Minutes 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.”
Both men perished soon after in the tower’s collapse.
John’s wife, June, the former June Maarleveld and sweetheart of the class behind us, was quoted in New York Times, 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.'”
It’s unfortunate but leaving New Jersey and running on the tenure-track treadmill in a biomedical career caused me to lose track of a great many friends, and in some ways, to stop appreciating life even. 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 send little gifts for the girls every so often. I cannot imagine how they and nearly 3000 other families deal with the most public of tragedies that came to roost among those at the start or in the prime of their adult lives.
I finally worked up the guts to go to Ground Zero two months ago for the first time since the attacks. Despite all the bickering about what the memorial should look like, there is already some small memorial area set up in the interim. John’s name sits at the top of one column of names on placards commemorating those who died there. And I so dearly wish that I had attended our high school reunion to thank John for his friendship during my formative years.
Instead, I keep a makeshift memorial to him, constructed at my old lab, that now sits outside my office and greets me every day. I also keep some other reminders: John’s picture, a photo of the Waldwick, NJ, memorial to John and all the firefighters who perished, a personal note from June with some of the best marital advice I’ve ever received, among others.
Some great minds have said that facing death often gives people the license to finally live their lives.
I am fortunate to have been touched by a soul who needed no such reminder.