GENEVA — It did not get the attention of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, but a massive 2007 blaze in South Carolina was the deadliest firefighter disaster in the U.S. since 9/11.
One of the first firefighters at that scene, who later plunged into a deep depression from “survivor’s guilt,” will talk next month in Geneva about those dark days and how he emerged from them.
Dr. David Griffin, battalion chief for the Charleston (SC) Fire Department, will be the keynote speaker for the Geneva Fire Department’s annual winter seminar. The Feb. 9 event, which annually draws hundreds of firefighters from the Finger Lakes region, will be at the Smith Opera House.
“This is one seminar you don’t want to miss,” said GFD Assistant Chief Kevin Powers, event organizer.
Griffin was the driver of the first engine to respond to the 2007 Sofa Super Store fire that claimed the lives of nine of his fellow firefighters and injured close to 20 others. Plagued with survivor’s guilt afterward, he numbed himself with alcohol, painkillers, and blood sports to the point that it nearly cost him his life.
“One can only sit around for so long and feel sorry for themselves until they have to get up and do something,” Griffin said.
Griffin later completed an education doctorate in organizational leadership and development and has been speaking to numerous organizations on the importance of moving away from “the way we have always done it.” In Geneva, he will talk candidly about the South Carolina fire and how it started massive reforms in how firefighters should be trained.
“I will talk a lot about professional development and not getting complacent. I will hit on the nine guys that we lost in 2007 and issues with our department at the time,” said Griffin, who has acknowledged his role in the disaster. “After the fire, OSHA came in and said we were very outdated with our training. We basically were doing the job the same way for 30 to 40 years, and over time we got lazy. I didn’t know my job or my training.”
Griffin took up mixed martial arts after the deadly fire. A turning point in his life came following a match, when he sat for three days — in darkness — with his eyes swollen shut from the battering to his face.
“I also turned to drugs and alcohol. I basically did anything I could to forget about that day,” he said, adding that he asked himself how his lifestyle honored the nine who were dead. “I was angry and had a skill set to go along with that anger. That was not a good combination.”
In addition to getting his PhD, Griffin also became a champion bodybuilder and competed in marathons and triathlons. In 2011, he took part in the Brotherhood Bicycle Ride that covered 1,700 miles from south Florida to Ground Zero in honor of the 10-year anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001.
He also dedicated his life to spreading the message of change to all types of organizations, including for-profit, non-profit and public service. He and his wife, Melissa, also founded the organization On A Mission, LLC, and his “Find Your Mission” tour kicked off in 2013.
Since then, Griffin has spoken to more than 500 organizations in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. His audiences include fire service organizations, police departments, military installations, universities, conferences, private industry organizations, law firms, business corporations, manufacturers, and charity events.
Griffin is also the author of three best-selling books, with another book coming out this year. Melissa Griffin also has published her first book, describing her struggles dealing with her husband’s plight.
Powers said due to Griffin’s appearance, the title of this year’s seminar is “On A Mission.” Powers said while most of the seminar’s speakers in the past are from New York, he reached out to Griffin after others heard him speak in the Rochester area.
“We heard his speech was just super, so we made contact with him. He does a lot of these things, so it was hard to get him,” Powers said. “What he emphasizes is you can’t do things the way they were done in the past. His department in South Carolina is a paid department and a professional department, but they were doing things you just don’t do today.”