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 ScienceBlogs.com. 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 GriffRocksOn.org.

griff-rocks-on-iv-2016

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Block party

I just walked outside my little dead-end neighborhood of 17 or so houses, almost exactly the number of my childhood neighborhood in northern New Jersey.
The houses and lots are a little bigger since money goes further in North Carolina. And yeah, sure, a state professor’s salary is a bit better than that of a printing press mechanic or registered nurse in the 1970s.
But there is a huge hole in my 4th of July experience.
There are no kids riding on their bicycles with American flags taped to their handle bars, ever the risk of poking out one’s eye – something that could probably get a parent in trouble with child protective services these days.
There are no kegs of root beer for the kids and Schaefer or Rheingold for the adults. Or kids pouring Rheingold into their root beer to hide their subversive behavior that the parents knew about anyway – stuff that would definitely get a parent in trouble with child protective services these days.
No Dads uncarting the huge blocks of ice from someone’s beat-up pickup truck to cool the beer and soda.
No one setting up the volleyball net in “The Court” – a place that we’d call a “cul-de-sac” today.
No Moms carrying huge bowls of potato salad and cole slaw up the street.
No Moms yelling, “What the hell’s the matter with you!?!,” at their kid – or someone else’s kid – who just set off a pack of firecrackers at 9 am.
There is no smell of hot dogs and hamburgers grilling or kielbasa and corn-on-the-cob boiling.
Or my Dad’s amazingly kick-ass Manhattan-style clam chowder, a recipe learned from my grandfather.
My other grandparents won’t be picking me up later to take the subway to the Bronx to go see my first major league baseball game: the Yankees playing the Washington Senators at the old, original, unrenovated Yankee Stadium.
My sister is not dressed up as The Statue of Liberty.

Dear Dad, With Love (repost)

This is a repost of my reflections on my father who passed away 13 years today. It took me 12 years to write the following eulogy and remembrance. While quite personal, I posted it here last year because I felt that my experiences were quite universal, shared by the families of the ten or twenty million alcoholics in the US and the hundreds of millions worldwide. Moreover, I wanted to provide a face for my colleagues who work in the area of substance abuse and a reminder for my clinical colleagues of the people behind those they may dismiss as drunks and junkies.

In becoming one my most most highly-read and highly-commented posts, I thought I would share it again this year, especially for the new readers who’ve come on board in the last twelve months.


This post originally appeared at Terra Sigillata on 12 March 2009.

Today marks 12 years since you died.

Well, it might have been today, possibly yesterday, I hope not too many days ago.

You see, you died alone in your apartment you rented from your sister downstairs. Yet no one checked on you as your mail accumulated Monday and Tuesday. One of your drinking buddies from the Disabled American Veterans post told me proudly at your funeral that he probably had with you your last beer that Saturday night. So, maybe it was the 8th or 9th?

When I think back, though, I believe you died some eight years earlier, just after your 50th birthday party. For your wife, my Mom, it was even long before that – she is a saint for staying with you as long as she did – no offense, Dad – and I know she still loves you no matter what.

Our family runs rich with depression and alcoholism but you died exceptionally early; my Dad – the young, fit, handsome fella you were in those pictures with little me at the Jersey shore, at home, or with me in that horrible Easter outfit – had died back then and was replaced for the last eight, ten, fourteen years by someone else.
dad and me 1966 515px.jpg
dad 04 Easter 1966 515px.jpg

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Sir John Crofton, TB combination therapy pioneer – a long and admirable life

Sir John Crofton.jpgDenise Gellene in the New York Times is reporting this morning that Scottish physician, Sir John Crofton, passed away on 3 November at age 97.
Crofton is best known for implementing a combination drug regimen to treat tuberculosis, the insidious lung infection with Mycobacterium tuberculosis which decimated the US early last century and still kills 2 million a year worldwide. The concept of using drug combinations to increase individual drug potency and slow the emergence of resistance is now a mainstay of therapeutic approaches for cancer, HIV, and other infectious diseases.
Gellene reports that Crofton first investigated streptomycin for TB shortly after the drug’s discovery and isolation at Rutgers by Selman Waksman and his then-graduate student, Albert Schatz. Waksman was sole winner of the 1952 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, with the oversight of Schatz ranked by Scientific American among the top 10 Nobel snubs.
Crofton’s original 1950 letter to the British Medical Journal on use of intermittent doses of streptomycin can be seen in this PDF.
Incidentally, the revered German physician, Robert Koch, was awarded the 1905 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of M. tuberculosis. His medical microbiology criteria, known as Koch’s Postulates, became the rubric for establishing causation of an infectious agent.

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Personal reflections on a September 11th 9/11 hero

[Here is why I will always remember. This was posted here originally on 11 September 2006.]
wtcgriff.jpg
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 [eight] 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.

Continue reading

Love and condolences to the Urbano and Kane families

UPDATE (Wed 29 April): As friends and family of the Urbanos and Kanes have been arriving here via web searches, I wanted to provide a compendium of individual obituaries and plans for visitation and funeral.
Visitation for all will be at Thiele-Reid Family Funeral Home, 585 Belgrove Drive, Kearny, NJ 07032, (201) 991-1031 on Thursday, 30 April, and Friday, 1 May from 2:00 to 9:00 p.m.
Funeral liturgy will be offered for all, at St. Stephen’s Church, in Kearny, on Saturday, 2 May, at 11:00 a.m.
The Urbanos will then be laid to rest at St. Nicholas Cemetery in Lodi; the Kanes will be laid to rest at Holy Cross Cemetery in North Arlington.
Individual obituaries:

Jeanette Urbano

Salvatore Urbano
Anna Kane
Francis Kane
Rose Kane
Each obituary contains information for making memorial gifts in lieu of flowers.


I just received terrible news last evening from one of my Jersey homeboys regarding the family of our beloved St. Mary’s High School classmate, Rose Urbano Olcese. Rose’s parents, two aunts, and uncle were killed this weekend when hit by a tractor-trailer on the New Jersey Turnpike while heading to a family wedding near Philadelphia.
The full story is here if you are so inclined but suffice it to say that this is an unimaginable tragedy for this wonderfully loving family and all who know them. Rose’s father, Salvatore, came to the US from Sicily just after World War II and had been a researcher at Hoffmann-LaRoche at the US headquarters of this Swiss-based pharma giant. Rose’s mother, Jeanette, was, like my own Mom, a nurse at Passaic General Hospital, the place where pretty much all of us were born. They would have celebrated their own wedding anniversary today, 41st or 48th depending on the press reports.
I have a quick happy memory of Rose’s mother, one of a great many that are being shared among all who were fortunate to know this family. Rose was/is smart and beautiful and, as such, was avidly sought by suitors in our small class of 72 students. I received the grace of being invited to go with Rose to our Sadie Hawkins dance during sophomore year. Since the tradition is that the girl does the inviting and arrangements, it was up to her Mom to pick us up and take us to the dance. She showed up at my house in their station wagon wearing a chauffeur’s cap with Rose sitting in back where I was to join her and be transported for one of the high points of my high school memories.
As social networking would have it, Rose and I caught up again on LinkedIn over the last year to share professional info as she was moving to the Dallas, Texas, area and in need of some employment contacts. We exchanged family photos – she has three adult children, all successful themselves – and she ended up with gainful employment down there. We lamented the years that have passed with everyone falling in and out of touch, as life just simply is.
And as with many old relationships, we come back together at weddings and funerals.
I cannot imagine having to get together to deal with the aftermath of this far reaching tragedy. As I suspect that Rose and her brother, John, are too overwhelmed to set up Legacy.com pages, I’d like to at least offer our little piece of the blogosphere for Urbano and Kane family members to register their memories and express their condolences.
[Many thanks to the chain of Joe, Emil, Mark, Steve, and Tommy to be sure I got this news]

Thank you, readers: reflections on Dad’s belated eulogy

I am truly humbled by reader response to my Thursday post on the 12th anniversary of my father’s death. What began as a simple journaling exercise interspersed with some great photos provided by my sister has become one of my most highly-read and most-commented posts.
I don’t want to comment too much lest I take away what this post has meant to me and others. But for background, this is something that I had intended to write for the 10th anniversary of Dad’s passing. However, I had only been with ScienceBlogs for a few months and wasn’t yet in a position to write so frankly and personally. I thought about this around 10 days ago. But when NIAAA launched their “Rethinking Drinking” site on Monday, I took it as a sign that this was the anniversary for it.
I have to admit that, surprisingly, I didn’t cry once while writing it. I thought about it quietly, with almost workmanlike focus, piecing together over three days and nights several stories I had always wanted to tell. There were others and they will come out in the future. The impact of the piece was enhanced by the gift of my sister, the family archivist of my generation. After Dad died, she and her fellow artist husband (designers of the Terra Sig masthead) fashioned his SUV license plate into a photo album cover containing of images of me with my Dad throughout my life. Those are the ones which adorn the post.
Anyway, I didn’t fall apart until my Mom commented saying that my Dad, true to form, would’ve taken a printout of the post and shown it to all of his buddies at the check printing factory.
I was also touched by the comment from my mother’s second husband, now Opa to my daughter and my nephews. As with me and my mother’s stepfather, he is the only real grandfather they will ever know on our side of the family. Without having children of his own before, and not having to suffer through my upbringing, he is a warm and loving presence in their lives.
I was also taken aback by several of my old friends who knew my Dad and surfaced in the comments, on my Facebook page, and in my e-mail boxes. In addition, the many friends I have made online around the world, from Chapel Hill to Brazil to Germany to Australia to India, all seem to have shared some way in my story.
As the post developed, I increasingly intended to tell a more precise, specific story to which many could relate. As I noted in the ScienceBlogs frontpage teaser tag, mine is a story shared by 18 to 25 million people in the US alone – personal, yet universal. I have an accomplished musician friend, Jon Shain, who once gave me the counterintuitive advice of when writing songs, to be as specific as possible instead of trying to generalize. Each person, Jon said, will interpret their experiences in the context of your story.
As such, many of you have shared with me your own experiences triggered by the post. Some positive, some equally wistful, many not. Perhaps that was the best part – to give my valued readers a focus around which to relate their own stories and examine their own relationships.
Your comments have also helped me notice that when writing biographical posts here, I generally write about dead people. My top two biographical posts are this one about Dad and another about a high school classmate who perished in the World Trade Center during the coordinated 11 Sept 2001 attacks in DC, NYC, and PA. (For reference, the number one autobiographical post and the most highly-read, linked, and commented is the liveblogging of my vasectomy.).
Lest I run out of personal tragedies and outpatient surgical procedures, I’ll probably try more in the future to acknowledge those who are still with us. None of us are perfect and each of us has something to celebrate, something that is unique to each of us.
Remembering Dad has reminded me to look for the good in everyone, everyday.
Until they start pissing me off incessantly. Then I will redouble my efforts.
Thank you for the honor of sharing my story with you.

Dear Dad, With Love

Today marks 12 years since you died.
Well, it might have been today, possibly yesterday, I hope not too many days ago.
You see, you died alone in your apartment you rented from your sister downstairs. Yet no one checked on you as your mail accumulated Monday and Tuesday. One of your drinking buddies from the Disabled American Veterans post told me proudly at your funeral that he probably had with you your last beer that Saturday night. So, maybe it was the 8th or 9th?
When I think back, though, I believe you died some eight years earlier, just after your 50th birthday party. For your wife, my Mom, it was even long before that – she is a saint for staying with you as long as she did – no offense, Dad – and I know she still loves you no matter what.
Our family runs rich with depression and alcoholism but you died exceptionally early; my Dad – the young, fit, handsome fella you were in those pictures with little me at the Jersey shore, at home, or with me in that horrible Easter outfit – had died back then and was replaced for the last eight, ten, fourteen years by someone else.
dad and me 1966 515px.jpg
dad 04 Easter 1966 515px.jpg

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Danny Federici – A Real Jersey Boy

A group e-mail showed up today from some of my boyhood friends and fellow Springsteen worshipers on the sad passing of Danny Federici yesterday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in NYC from melanoma. He was only 58.
Here’s my open letter and response to the thread:

Hey-a Boyce,
Not too much more to add here except my sadness on the passing of a great musician and, as O’D sez, one of the crucial background guys who added so much to the sound without needing the spotlight. I watched the killer video of Danny from March 20th in Indy doing the accordion on “Sandy” – he looked fabulous and I can’t believe he’s gone. I do that cancer research thing today and it still amazes me how fast it can suck the life out of someone. I guess I need to be working harder.
The last two times I saw the E Street Band were in Greensboro (with Jonah and wife) and at UNC-Chapel Hill – my best musical memory of Federici from those tours was the organ solo in “You’re Missing.” At the nighttime outdoor concert in Chapel Hill, some huge Southern bug flew into Bruce’s mouth – he pulled it out and asked the crowd, “Is this the college mascot?”
As I may have said to some of you when Joe Strummer died, you know we’re getting old when our idols start dying of regular stuff like cancer and cardiovascular disease instead of drug overdoses.
Hope all you guys are rocking on in your respective lives – Schneider laid down the gauntlet last time we all wrote – for us all to meet up at SXSW some year.
Maybe we should before we start checking out, too.
All the best to you and your families,
The Pharmboy-meister


Hat-tip to O’D for the post title.