Greensboro man took charge at ground zero

Greensboro demolition expert took charge after witnessing the chaos at ground zero

Staff WriterSeptember 7, 2011 

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— The deconstruction of the World Trade Center buildings after 9/11 was the Super Bowl of the demolition industry, David Griffin says, the largest such job ever undertaken anywhere in the world.

Griffin wasn't looking to be put in charge of the effort when he loaded up his truck and headed for New York to see if he could lend a hand.

Griffin wasn't invited to come to ground zero, though he was head of Greensboro-based D.H. Griffin Companies, one of the nation's top three demolition outfits at the time.

But in the same way that thousands of young men and women watched the news about the terrorist attacks and went to the nearest U.S. Army or Marine recruiting station to sign up, Griffin felt pulled to New York.

After the shock of every large-scale disaster comes the need to clean it up. Griffin knew he could help.

"It was an honor to be a part of it," he says, looking back.

His experience on the project changed the nature of his business, and it altered the way Griffin looks at life.

"All those people who died that day were doing no different from what we're doing," Griffin says of the 2,749 people who perished when planes hit both World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. "They were doing their jobs.

"It makes you appreciate your family. You should appreciate every day, because you never know what life holds for you."

When he left for New York the day after the attacks, Griffin didn't know what the trip would hold for him, either. He didn't know a single soul in New York and no one there knew him.

They didn't know he had grown up in his daddy's demolition business; that by the time he was in high school he could pace off a building's square footage and accurately estimate its value in salvage; that he had handled the complex disassembly of structures all over the country.

His wife, Donna, insisted on going and taking the couple's three children in case he needed his family's support at the end of the day.

He arrived at ground zero on Sept. 13 and talked his way into a spot on a bucket brigade hauling away pieces from a 20-foot pile of debris. He soon began offering advice, and by Sept. 16 he had been hired as a consultant on taking down what was left of Tower Two and the Marriott hotel.

Taking charge

On Sept. 28, he was asked to oversee all 2,000 workers involved in taking apart and hauling off the more than 17 million square feet of office space that had been reduced to 1.7 million tons of debris.

Griffin stayed in New York for seven months and had workers in his company on the job there for another year, working 16-hour days and finishing the demolition under budget and ahead of schedule.

The first year after the disaster was a difficult one financially for many industries in the country, and Griffin's was no different. But gradually, the work began to pick up, and Griffin's reputation for post-disaster demolition work began to spread. It now makes up a large share of his business.

Cleaning up after a fire, hurricane or explosion is different from the planned demolition of a building that has outlasted its usefulness, Griffin says. It's more dangerous because crews have less control, and it's more emotionally challenging because belongings, and often lives, have been lost.

D.H. Griffin crews took down seven of the nine Gulf Coast casinos destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Lately, they've helped with cleanup after tornadoes ripped apart a Wrangler jeans plant in Hackleburg, Ala., and a Lowe's home improvement store in Sanford.

By volume, D.H. Griffin is now the largest demolition company in the nation, Griffin says.

Most of the sites where Griffin does planned demolition are slated for redevelopment, and he's glad that the land at ground zero will have both a memorial museum and commercial properties, though it has taken longer than projected.

"I'm the kind of person, I believe that if you get knocked down and you don't come back up, that's a bad sign," Griffin says.

"I know it's kind of sacred ground. But as an American, I'm glad to see we're building back."

martha.quillin@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8989

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