As the sun came up on June 19, 2007, Charleston firefighter David Griffin was physically spent and emotionally drained. As the driver of the first truck on the scene of the Sofa Super Store fire, he had spent the previous 13 hours pumping water, choking on smoke and digging through the embers for his nine brothers who died. His system was in shock, and he was so upset he could barely drive home. What happened the night of that fire and the next morning changed him forever, and for a long while, the change was not for the good.
In the months that followed, Griffin would leave the room or totally shut down when the conversation turned to that moment. He would become upset and wouldn’t engage with others. He turned away from friends and family. Those months eventually stretched into more than two years that engulfed Griffin in an emotional abyss. He was sullen, confused and unsure his choice to be a firefighter was a very smart one.
Griffin learned a lot that hot, summer night in 2007. What he eventually realized was that he wanted to teach future firefighters how to better prepare themselves.
Now 32, Griffin recently received the designation of “fire officer.” He’s the first to ever achieve the distinction in the history of the department. As an instructor in the department, his duties are to teach and to lead. He believes his “trial by fire” allows him now to connect with new recruits in a way he did not have the capacity to do before that tragic night. Training others helps to fill a void. He has purpose and understands he can still learn and doesn’t profess to already know everything.
To that end, he continues to seek additional personal education. Already, he has earned a master’s degree. Soon, he will complete a doctorate in organizational leadership and development.
He’s now writing a speech that he will deliver to a national instructors conference. The title is “Tragedy to Triumph.” He talks about his personal rebound from that fire and how internal changes have made this department stronger. Griffin is still in awe when firefighters from New York City or Chicago seek out brothers from Charleston because “they want to talk to us.”
Through the smoke, the embers, the funerals, the tears ... that moment was etched into his DNA and eventually gave his life an entirely new direction.
Guilt and grief
For a while, Griffin lived with guilt, a misplaced belief that “it was my fault.” We all know that fire’s intensity and ferocity were bigger than any one man’s or one department’s ability to control.
I was standing across the street from the smoldering ashes when the sun came up June 19, 2007. The television station I worked for at that time felt I might be able to add perspective and convey to viewers the unspeakable tragedy that had befallen our community and, in many ways, the entire nation. In truth, there were no words to adequately describe what we felt and saw. I watched Griffin assist in carrying out the final fallen firefighter. Little did I know then that we’d later come together to tell this story.
There’s a lesson for all of us in how Griffin has found purpose in his life. Some of it speaks to being open to learning and teaching.
As for honoring those guys who didn’t make it? He says there’s only one way: “You gotta get back on the truck.”
The holidays are designed to be uplifting, but sometimes they’re depressing. If you find yourself a little low, take Griffin’s approach and “get back on the truck.”
Reach Warren Peper at wpeper@post andcourier.com.