Personal Reflections on a 9/11 Hero

I originally wrote this remembrance of my high school classmate 10 years ago, on September 11, 2006, at Terra Sigillata on It has appeared in various forms on several sites, but this is the only place where you can still share your comments.


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 [15] 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 every time 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.

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 [ten 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.

2012 Postscript

This picture also appeared in 2011 when John’s younger daughter, Julie, now 20, was interviewed for the Waldwick (NJ) Suburban News by Jody Weinberger.

Julie’s memory of the events that took place on 9/11 is spotty. She was a fourth-grader at Crescent Elementary School when relatives came to take her and Jenna home.

“It was kind of chaotic,” Julie recalls, sitting on a stool in her kitchen. “Even though people were saying things, I didn’t know what they were talking about. I didn’t know what terrorism was and not even adults could really grasp what was happening.

“My grandpa came up to me and told me bad people did something to where my dad worked and that’s all I could really grasp at the time.”

After discussing her father’s rescue of Mr. Savas, Julie shared more of her mixed feelings:

“But then I think he actually went back to help more people and I think that’s when the buildings collapsed,” Julie said. “I was kind of angry knowing that he went to go save other people instead of thinking about coming home to his family. That bothered me but now I know he’s a hero.”

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Julie thinks about just some of the many moments she’s missed not having her father around.

“People think that it’s just the anniversaries, birthdays and holidays, and it’s true, those really are hard times, but every day [you have to] keep your head up and think positive,” she said. “It’s little things like learning how to drive and applying for college, or my first day of college that you just kind of wish he was there for, and you just have to keep going, I guess.”

Julie feels that by going after her dreams – which currently means graduating from the University of Tampa and pursuing a career in elementary education – she is making her father proud.


That Facebook post from June was from 2012. In 2013, we heard directly from Julie Griffin in a brave article she wrote for the national website of Kappa Alpha Theta, “Overcoming tragedy with the help of my sisters.”


Postscript – 2016

Next Friday, September 16, 2016, many of us are gathering at St. Mary High School in Rutherford, New Jersey for Griff Rocks On, an annual fundraiser to honor our fallen hero that provides tuition assistance for SMHS students in need. June, my sister, Sandi, and my classmates have formally established John Griffin 9/11 Foundation as a 501(c)(3) organization. We’d love to have any of you attend, celebrate John’s life and dance and sing to the B Street Band, a Bruce Springsteen cover band. Regardless, and if you’re so inclined, tax-deductible donations can be made to the Foundation at the PayPal button below. For more information, please visit


How to save a life: physician humanity

Bear with me this morning because I am growing very weary of my physician colleagues enduring all sorts of haranguing for being hateful, pharma shills who only want to cut, burn, and poison.
I was extremely fortunate, personally and professionally, to train in two clinical units with strong basic science programs. As such, I worked at the bench with MD fellows and we schooled each other on our respective strengths. I loved when when my colleagues would come back from clinic and tell me of experiences that put our bench work in real world perspective. Yes, not all bench work is immediately applicable clinically, but these day-to-day experiences influenced how I view basic research. Moreover, these relationships continue to serve me and my laboratory today.
Reusch 5280.jpgOne of my most meaningful relationships was with the wife and husband MD partnership described in this post by Alittleclarity about her father’s cardiac surgery consultation. My old buddy, Dr John (Jay) Reusch Jr, is pretty well-known in the Colorado Front Range having been on the cover of last year’s Top Docs issue of Denver’s 5280 magazine. He taught me a great deal about life, fatherhood, music, and humanity. And if I ever needed cardiac surgery, I’d be at his clinic in a heartbeat – as it were.
So, I loved stumbling on this post that compared and contrasted how different physicians view the same patient.

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The Friday Fermentable: Triangle Tweetup 2.0

If you follow me on Twitter (@abelpharmboy) or looked at this post Thursday, you’d know that I was going to a meetup of area Twitter users. I honestly had no idea what to expect and have to say that it was a rather enriching experience. It gave me a chance to press the flesh with a crowd very different and higher energy than some (but not all) scientific gatherings.
The group was different because the people I met were more in the tech and communications biz and the higher energy might have come from that I was probably one standard deviation away from the mean age. Click through the photo booth pictures taken by Josh Hofer here to get a feel for the crowd – the brontosaurus was the mascot of the host, Bronto Software, and the bird is the icon for The Iconfactory whose Greensboro, NC-based representatives were onsite to demonstrate the new version of Twitterific for the iPhone and iPod touch.
fullsteam.jpgAs I predicted, the highlight for me was indeed drinking my first samples of beer from Fullsteam Brewery. A brewery-in-planning, Fullsteam is led by Sean Lilly Wilson (@fullsteam) who, “founded and led Pop The Cap, a lobbying organization that opened up state economic markets to North Carolina’s specialty beer industry.” With Sean was brewmaster Chris Davis (@fullsteam32). Together, they poured their “Control” beer Rocket Science India Pale Ale and their “Experimental” beer, Sweet Potato Amber.

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Time to clean out your closets – how can you help in your community?

I used to keep a separate blog for items of local interest but I can’t even keep up with one. So, you’ll occasionally have to bear with me posting about issues of import from the area in and around Terra Sigillata World Headquarters.
But here’s a local bit of info for our NC Triangle readers that should also remind the rest of you around the world to see what you can do in your own communities, especially during the global economic downturn.
This came across a tag in my Facebook from my far-better half, PharmGirl. I said, “Wow, this is great – where did you get it? Did you write it?” The response was a facial expression of exasperation that I clearly deserved, especially since I think this was also a thinly-veiled announcement to get off the couch and go through my own closets and office area.
And for those of our readers in the Southern hemisphere, a good fall cleaning can’t hurt either.
From the pen, er, keyboard, of the PharmGirl:

Time to clean out your closets!
Time for spring cleaning is upon us again which means cleaning out all of those clothes, shoes, and housewares you never use.
If you are in the Durham area, please consider donating your gently used items to one of the following charities — throughout the country, more people are shopping at thrift shops and in need of help, while donations are down.

Urban Ministries of Durham
— a non-denominational homeless shelter/food pantry in Downtown Durham. They are particularly in need of men’s clothes, shoes and work boots.
Durham Crisis Response Center — provides shelter and support services to survivors and families following domestic or sexual violence. The Center operates a thrift store, Pennies for Change, with all profits going to support the Center. The thrift store accepts a variety of items including women’s and children’s clothes and shoes.

Habitat for Humanity –Habitat operates ReStore, a secondhand/thrift store. Proceeds from the ReStore support Habitat for Humanity affiliates in Durham and Orange counties in their mission to build decent, affordable housing. They will accept larger things, such as furniture and appliances, and will provide pick up. They also gladly accept housewares.
Of course volunteers and monetary donations are always welcomed at each of these organizations as well.
While I’m promoting my favorite area charities, please also take a look at donating to or volunteering at the Food Bank of Central and Eastern NC, with locations in Raleigh, Durham, Greenville, Southern Pines and Wilmington. There are Food Bank locations throughout the country, so a quick Google search should show your local food bank site.

We spend a lot of time on these pages complaining about the state of science funding and the lack of job security shared by many of us. But, in reality, there is a disturbing degree of suffering going on out there from hunger, homelessness, sexual abuse and domestic violence.
For those of us blessed with more, I encourage everyone to look around their crib for things that could be better used by those in your community who are less fortunate.

Sean Wilson: Pop-the-Cap leader and Fullsteam Brewery founder named Tar Heel of the Week

Sean%20Wilson.jpgI should really save this new item for next week’s Friday Fermentable but I was too excited walking back from picking up the NYT and local fishwrapper from the cold, rainy driveway this morning.
Beer enthusiast, brewer, and public policy wiz, Sean Wilson, is staring back at me on the front page of the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer as “Tar Heel of the Week,” in a Josh Shaffer article entitled, “Brewer to blend mad science, local flavor.”
Each week, the N&O recognizes a citizen making substantial and often unique contributions to the state’s economy, community, cultural patina, or all of the above.
In this case “Tar Heel” refers to all North Carolina residents rather than specifically those who attend(ed) the University of North Carolina. Hence, while some discomfort may result for some, even a Duke University graduate can be named a Tar Heel of the Week (Wilson earned an MBA and a master’s in public policy from the university-that-tobacco-built).
I can say without hyperbole that Sean Wilson is among those with the greatest impact on my day-to-day life and, most certainly, on my enjoyment of said life. I probably also speak for thousands of North Carolina beer lovers. And with his current push to finish the last round of investor fundraising, he continues to further promote beer as Southern culture with his new Fullsteam Brewery.

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The Friday Fermentable: The Essence of Wine Appreciation by Seth Gross and Craig Heffley

Okay, so kill me – I’m posting The Friday Fermentable on Saturday morning. I just couldn’t get it together yesterday and the US Thanksgiving holiday has my timing all screwed up.
seth%20and%20craig.jpgI noted earlier this week that the proprietors of our community treasure, Wine Authorities, were to be interviewed on the local NPR affiliate, WUNC-FM, in (guess where?) Chapel Hill, NC, USA. Frank Stasio, a remarkable gentleman in his own right, spoke with Craig Heffley and Seth Gross on his noontime show, The State of Things. The interview was preempted Monday by the economy-related cabinet appointments announced by President-Elect Obama, but the boys appeared successfully on Tuesday’s program (show archive here).
I promote these Wine Authorities purveyors often as examples of the philosophy, expertise, and objectivity that our readers should seek among their own local wine merchants (although USians may care to order directly from them: Seth and Craig will FedEx their wines to about 43 US states, a reasonable consideration for some offerings that are imported into the US only by them). The Wine Authorities are also longstanding supporters of the local scientific blogosphere and, more broadly, other like-minded independent businesses and the technology-based community.
I also bring these gentlemen to your attention as we are in secret negotiations with them to present some aspect of their wares and expertise to the 200+ of you who will be participating in the ScienceOnline’09 unconference in January.
Even if you’re not in North Carolina, I encourage you to listen to their interview because of the unusual and refreshing attitude they bring to selling and educating about wine in their lives as combination neighborhood bar/butchershop/community gathering place. Here are the high points for me:

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The first annual StoryCorps National Day of Listening

storycorps.jpgThe recent passing of Studs Terkel and my conversations with African American colleagues after the Obama victory has given me pause to think about our life stories, especially the life stories of our elders. For example, I lost all of my grandparents before I could get their life stories on videotape, digital recorder, or writing – I also said I was going to do it during some visit home. My grandparents had some incredible stories about The Great Depression, the World Wars, even the history of my hometown that was farmland in the middle of factories only a dozen miles from one of the largest cities in the world.
So I was delighted when I received an e-mail from StoryCorps Marketing and Communications specialist, Kathleen McCarthy. Kathleen remembered me from my commentary on the exploding bra story they aired on NPR last June and my admiration for Stetson Kennedy, the civil rights activist captured in a StoryCorps oral history.
StoryCorps is “an independent nonprofit that has helped more than 40,000 Americans record their stories. As one of the largest oral history projects of its kind, it is our mission to help people honor and celebrate one another’s lives through listening.” Highly-decorated radio documentary producer, Dave Isay, launched the initiative in October 2003 as a recording booth at Grand Central Terminal. A couple of StoryCorps Airstream trailers cross the country where people can sign up to interview a loved one or discuss a friend or family member who has passed on; two CDs are made, one for the participants and one archived in the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. When the mobile studio showed up in my town, reservations were completely booked up in just over a day.
Since many of USians are gathering for Thanksgiving this weekend, StoryCorps has partnered again with NPR to sponsor the first annual National Day of Listening on Friday 28 November.

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Cornucopia House Cancer Support Center celebrates its founders

Just a quick reminder of who you’re really supporting when you come by and click on this humble blog.
It’s no secret that joining Seed Media Group’s can bring the blogger(s) a very small amount of compensation based upon grades of site traffic – depending on your traffic, this could be about as much as paying for your monthly highspeed internet connection at the house. But over the course of a year, this ends up being more money than I donate personally to my public radio station.
Anyway, when I started Terra Sig at the old joint and was invited to join Sb, I was in a meatspace job where I was not allowed to accept any additional compensation. So, I just had (and continue to have) Seed donate my doubloons directly to a local, non-profit cancer patient support center that operates independently of our NCI cancer centers and other cancer hospitals. They perform a wonderful mission in giving resources, education, and a healing space not just for people with cancer but their family and caregivers as well. They also offer events on tai chi and exercise, stress management, nutrition, and other types of supportive modalities while being very, very careful not to venture into the unsubstantiated arena of deceptive alternative practices (yes, I’ll occasionally be called up to evaluate a session for a ruling on “woo”/”not woo”).
This past weekend, Cornucopia House Cancer Support Center, held an event to honor and remember the women who founded this organization 12 years ago:

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The Pseudonymity Laboratory: When Authors and Bloggers Collide

Is snarky honest real-time discussion of a paper’s conclusions more constructive to the authors and the larger scientific enterprise than formal, reserved, and staid holding forth in the correspondence section of a classic clinical journal? Fact is that this discussion will be over even before the next issue of the journal comes out.
A really interesting interplay has been ongoing across the sci/med blogosphere following a commentary last Wednesday by Dr Isis on a NEJM correspondence, entitled, “Shifts to and from Daylight Saving Time and Incidence of Myocardial Infarction.” (free full text at the time of this post.).
Many of us post commentaries on peer-reviewed publications, often tagging posts with the former BPR3/current ResearchBlogging icon and aggregator founded originally by Dave Munger and colleagues. For some reason, my commentaries and few of others have actually garnered feedback from the original authors.
Well, Isis’ commentary drew comments from the original authors of the NEJM correspondence paper, Drs Imre Janszky and Rickard Ljung of the Karolinska Institut and National Board of Health and Welfare in Stockholm.

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ScienceOnline’09: a special message to the pseudonymous blogger

scionline09.jpgAs you may have heard elsewhere, the third annual major (and free) US science blogging conference, ScienceOnline’09, began accepting registrations last Monday. The meeting will be held 16-18 January 2009 in Research Triangle Park, NC, USA.
As of 10 am EDT today, there are already 78 registrants on the way to a cap of 225-ish. However, I have noted that only one registrant is listed on the wiki under a pseudonym.
This is a special message to my kindred spirits who write under a pseudonym and are wondering how in the heck they can go to such a great communications extravaganza and bloggy bonding bellwether without blowing their cover.

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