Eight years ago today, on September 11, 200l, our country witnessed the worst terrorist attack in our history as hijacked planes flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Nearly 3,000 people were killed. The majority of the victims came from the World Trade Center in New York City.
As word about the disaster spread, an unprecedented number of police, firefighters, rescue workers and volunteers poured into the city to help. Among this group of heroes were an estimated 250-300 canine teams who arrived on the scene to sniff out those who were injured or trapped and to recover the dead.
The rescue and recovery effort at the World Trade Center was the “largest deployment of search dogs in U.S. history,” according to FEMA. Approximately 80 FEMA canines were used at the twin towers and another 20 were sent to the Pentagon. The other dogs came from K-9 units from the New York and New Jersey Police Departments and police departments from surrounding areas. Others came from various state and local agencies and volunteer groups.
The dogs were composed of search and rescue canines and cadaver dogs. There dogs represented a wide variety of breeds: German Shepherds, Australian Shepherds, Belgian Shepherds, Yellow/Black/Chocolate Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Portuguese Waterdogs, German Shorthair Pointers, Belgian Malinious, Border Collies, Belgian Tervurnes, Doberman Pincers, Giant Schnauzers, Rat Terriers and several mixed breeds and “pound puppies.”
All of the dogs that participated in the rescue and recovery efforts during those first terrible weeks after the attacks are national heroes. Many of the canine teams stayed for the entire recovery process which lasted nearly one-month.
Kristen Mehus-Roe memorialized some of the canine handlers’ reactions in an article for the ASPCA in 2002. As you will see, it was of utmost importance to them to keep their dogs safe while doing the job.
Debra Tosch and Ron Weckbacher arrived at the World Trade Center with their dogs Manny and Abby soon after the disaster. Tosch is the executive director for the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation in CA.
“When you get there and the towers are no longer part of the skyline and all you see is smoke and lights coming from where the Trade Center once was…you feel like you’re in a dream,” said Weckbacher. Manny and Abby were raring to go. Abby’s agility on the rubble pile impressed her handler as she negotiated her way over six-inch beams and 40-foot drops with warped and moving metal.
“It was a judgment call every time you went on a search,” said Tosch. “I was worried about her (Abby) falling or getting cut.” “We were very careful. We didn’t send them into hot areas; we didn’t send them into voids that hadn’t been checked by structural engineers and hazmat specialists. I was constantly watching and worrying – it’s our job to watch them very closely.”
The search and rescue dogs and canine cadaver dogs were heroes to the injured victims they found trapped under the collapsed buildings. And as they uncovered the remains of innocent victims, they gave comfort and closure to thousands of families who lost a loved one in the disaster.
It took 3 ½ weeks for the canine teams to complete their mission. And despite the hazardous conditions, the dogs had very few serious injuries.
According to FEMA there were “some lacerations, abrasions and stress-related afflictions such as diarrhea and dehydration.” All of these injuries were treated at a staging area set up by the Veterinary Medical Assistance Team. “All of the dogs were able and eager to work their next shift.”
The dogs and their handlers made themselves available on-call for 12-hour shifts. They generally worked in the rubble for 20 to 45 minutes and then rested for an equal period of time.
The only dog to lose his life in the disaster was a Yellow Labrador Retriever named Sirius. He worked for the Port Authority as a bomb-detection dog alongside his partner Sergeant David Lim. Lim and Sirius were in the basement of the South Tower when the North Tower was attacked. He put the 4-year-old dog in his kennel and left to check on the situation.
“I told him, I think we’re in a lot of trouble right now,” said Lim, who assumed he and Sirius had somehow failed to detect an explosive. “I said, I’ll be back for you.”
But before Lim could return, the South Tower collapsed followed by the North Tower. Lim was trapped on the fourth floor with six firefighters and an injured woman. They were all safely rescued five hours later.
Lim came back for Sirius as he promised, but it was too late. He continued to look for his partner until eventually – on Jan. 22, 2002 the dog’s remains were uncovered.
The Port Authority held a memorial service in his honor and have since built a memorial at Battery Park with a dog run.
As we remember that fateful day eight years ago, please take time to think of the many heroic dogs that took their place in history by rescuing and recovering victims of the attack.
Read more Care2 perspectives on the anniversary of that traumatic day: