Out of the fire: Sofa store firefighter finds solace, honors fallen
Muffled shouts and the clang of bumping air tanks echoed off the metal walls as a group of Charleston firefighters crawled blind and disoriented through a narrow hallway in search of a way out.
David Griffin straddled a wooden ledge above the group, egging them on in the darkness as the firefighters clawed through a warren of claustrophobia-inducing passageways designed to simulate what they might encounter in a hoarder’s home during a fire.
“C’mon, people, let’s go!” Griffin, the training instructor, shouted. “Communicate!”
Blindfolded, grunting and sweating, the firefighters slowly made their was through the tight confines, only to find that another group had been sent in from the opposite direction, adding to the confusion and congestion.
The message was clear: Firefighting is dangerous business; you should always prepare for the unexpected.
“You have to be able to adapt and overcome,” Griffin said.
That statement might well be Griffin’s driving philosophy in the six years since he escaped a raging inferno that claimed the lives of nine fellow firemen.
In the wake of the deadly Sofa Super Store blaze, Griffin initially resisted efforts by the city to temper the Fire Department’s hard-charging tactics while trying to bury his grief and guilt with booze, painkillers and punishing workouts.
He spent countless hours training to become a mixed martial arts fighter, hoping to honor the memory of his fallen comrades through victories in the cage. But as Griffin lay bruised with his eyes swollen shut in the aftermath of his first professional bout, he took stock in his life and questioned the wisdom of the path he was on.
He decided to pursue a different course, one that might better honor the men who died and those who remain in the fire service across the country.
Griffin, a 33-year-old Charleston native, went back to school and recently received his doctorate of education from Arizona’s Grand Canyon University in organizational leadership and development.
His dissertation focused on the rapid and extensive changes that occurred in the Charleston Fire Department after the Sofa Super Store fire and how the organization had adapted.
His resulting book, “In Honor of The Charleston 9: A Study of Change Following Tragedy,” will be released Dec. 9 on Amazon.com.
Griffin hopes the book can become part of a curriculum other fire departments can use as a guide and source of support when confronted with multiple line-of-duty deaths.
“I want people to know the good things and the positives that the men and women of this department have done,” he said. “In taking what happened that day and putting it on a national stage, I’m trying to progress from something that was so tragic and show that you have to keep moving on, to keep doing good, positive things to help your people, your department and the citizens you serve.”
Patricia Dolasinski, a Grand Canyon University professor who mentored Griffin through his dissertation, said she was struck by his drive and determination in seeking his doctorate, as well as his desire to help others through his work.
“While it was a personal goal for David, I think he really wanted to make a contribution to the public’s welfare and well-being, as well as acknowledge the lives that were sacrificed in Charleston,” she said.
On the night of June 18, 2007. Griffin drove the first truck to arrive at the Sofa Super Store in West Ashley as a small trash fire grew into a sea of flames. He watched nine friends enter the store and never return.
The fire spread undetected through the space above the ceiling, then overtook crews inside the sprawling furniture outlet on Savannah Highway. As their comrades fought to reach them through billowing smoke and roaring flames, the building’s roof came crashing down. At the time, it was the largest single loss of firefighters since Sept. 11, 2001.
Various investigations found significant faults with the Charleston Fire Department’s handling of the blaze, and the city embarked on a multi-million-dollar makeover to improve and modernize the department’s leadership, training, tactics and equipment — a top-to-bottom overhaul that made safety a key priority.
To a good number in the rank-and-file, the approach seemed an assault on Charleston’s proud tradition of aggressive interior firefighting. Griffin was among those rankled at the changes and the daunting amount of training heaped upon him and his colleagues.
“I was resisting change about as much as anyone can resist change,” he said. “Every little thing that came out, I would try to buck the system because I thought it would make me soft if I gave into the organizational culture we now had.”
3 days to recover
Grappling with survivor’s guilt and grief, Griffin found his therapy in ultimate cage fighting. With chiseled features, a trim build and a mass of coiled muscle, he racked up a 3-1 record in amateur bouts, and his trainer called him “probably the fastest growing fighter I’ve ever seen.” But balancing work, school and a training schedule that required three 60- to 90-minute workout sessions per day took its toll.
3 days to recover
Griffin guzzled excessive amounts of energy drinks to get jacked up to fight. Then, at the end of the day, he’d use painkillers, muscle relaxers and alcohol to quell the caffeine rush and dull the aches in his body.
His professional debut came on June 11, 2010 — seven days before the third anniversary of the sofa store fire. The top-of-the-card bout against veteran fighter Houston “The Assassin” Alexander was dubbed the “Clash at the Coliseum” and a “real life ‘Rocky’ story.” It has landed Griffin’s menacing stare on billboards and posters throughout the region.
Cheering firefighters filled the audience as Griffin entered the North Charleston Coliseum wearing a shirt memorializing the nine fallen firefighters.
He fought hard, but images of the fire flashed back at him as Alexander’s fists rained down.
“I just kept seeing it, even though I was inside the fight,” he said. “That’s when I knew it was still in there and still bothering me.”
He made it through the 15-minute fight, but the decision went to Alexander. Griffin then spent three days recovering at home, unable to see through his swollen eyes and dependent on his wife, Melissa, for help. It gave Griffin time to contemplate his situation.
“I started to think: ‘What have I done since the fire to make the department better, the fire service better and myself better,’” he said. “I began to realize that me going in there and punching someone in the face is not doing anything for the guys I work with. It didn’t mean anything.”
He also realized that his resistance to the department’s new ways was only making things harder for himself and others. “I decided I should be someone who is trying to lead the way and trying to do something good to help others going through the same problems I was having.”
His wife of seven years said Griffin’s change of heart was almost like a switch going off.
“All of a sudden after the fight, something inside him literally changed,” Melissa Griffin said. “And since then, it continues to grow every hour, every day, each week, this desire to conquer anything and everything in front of him.”
Griffin got involved in committees working to improve the Fire Department, joined the honor guard and immersed himself in the new training and tactics. He found that being progressive and safety-conscious didn’t mean being soft, that firefighters could still do their jobs and protect the city without subjecting themselves to unnecessary risks.
Now assigned to the department’s training division, he teaches those lessons to others to keep them out of harm’s way.
While still working, Griffin also went after his doctorate, completing his studies through a mix of online work and occasional visits to the university’s Phoenix campus to huddle with professors. He’d go to bed late, wake up early and cram as much as he could into each day, finishing his dissertation in about a year’s time, impressing his professors.
“He is quite possibly the most focused person I have ever met in my life,” his wife said. “There is never a down moment in one of his days.”
He focused his study on how an organization responds to a crisis at all levels, using the Charleston Fire Department as his subject. He gathered piles of information on the fire, its aftermath and the changes enacted. He also surveyed 27 firefighters who were with the department before, during and after the sofa store fire. Most completed an anonymous online questionnaire, and five were selected for one-on-one interviews with Griffin.
Griffin said he wasn’t sure if participants would embrace the changes, as he had, or rail against the department and its transformation. But in the end, the results were overwhelmingly positive, he said.
The experience gave Griffin a new appreciation for the breadth of the change the department had gone through. “Everything we do is totally different now,” he said. “We always have more things to do, but when you think about where we were and where we are now, its monumental.”
Charleston City Councilman Mike Seekings, who has known Griffin for years, describes him as a born leader and an innovator who has reinvented himself to meet life’s challenges.
Charleston Deputy Fire Chief Pat Wilson agreed. Wilson said he and others are anxious to read Griffin’s 284-page book and see the department’s accomplishments shared with a wider audience. “What he’s been able to do is pretty amazing,” he said.
Dolasinski, his doctoral mentor, hopes to have him return to the school to speak to other students, and Griffin already has traveled to Maryland, Indianapolis and other cities to share his “Tragedy to Triumph” message with firefighters.
Memories of the 2007 fire remain difficult, Griffin said, but he’s found a way to honor the dead in a meaningful way.
“It bothers me every day, and it always will,” he said. “But the way I overcome that is to speak about those guys every day, to write about them and to teach about them. It’s a life-learning experience, and it changes your DNA. It changed mine.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556