Recalling My Conversations With Search and Rescue Dog Handlers of 9/11
Like most people, I’ll never forget where I was on September 11, 2001, twenty years ago. I was at home watching The Today Show but not paying much attention until the plane hit Tower One at the World Trade Center. When I realized America had been attacked, my first thought was for my wife. I must have dialed Robin 500 times in two minutes.
At that time, she was working in a high rise across the street from Sears Tower (now Willis Tower), a potential target. I was pleading with her to come home, when over the company’s PA system an announcement was made for the employees to leave.
Everyone was leaving downtown – even people who lived there… I recall what a beautiful day it was. I took our dogs at the time (now both deceased) just the couple of blocks to the train station to greet Robin. Somehow, I also didn’t want her to walk home alone. As we headed home and I saw some lingering planes still flying on their way to O’Hare International Airport. I actually thought – what if one hits a high rise building near where we live?
We watched the events on TV, horrified and numb. Tears streamed from our eyes. One of our dogs, Lucy, jumped up on the sofa and began to whimper and shake. She had never done that before. And in her lifetime never did it again.
Robin knew people who worked at the World Trade Center, and had sometimes visited them on business. She was at the World Trade Center – just weeks before. She found out later, some colleagues had died that day.
By the next morning, I thought, “I have to do something.”
I contacted FEMA. I was astonished that FEMA took my request to speak to search and rescue dog handlers seriously.
While waiting to hear back from FEMA, I somehow learned about Chris Christensen, a St. Louis area police officer, who had arrived on the scene with his search and rescue dog Servus, a Belgian Malinois.
Christensen said he had no interest in talking to the media, but sought me out – not because of my then syndicated newspaper column or radio program, it is because at that time I wrote a column for Dog World magazine.
Christensen drove through the night from St. Louis. I caught up with Chris the first time by phone from the Animal Medical Center.
Chris was in tears, telling me how at this point the handlers and their dogs were desperately and hopefully searching for human survivors. Chris and Servus were scaling a mountain of debris at Ground Zero when the dog lost his footing, and slid nose fist down what must have been several stories. The fine particle debris (a grisly cocktail of building particles to human remains), still burning in places, filled Servus’ nostrils, and he could barely breathe.
Chris and a local police office flagged down an ambulance, and Servus was rushed to the emergency animal hospital. It took several hours to stabilize him, but he was successfully treated, and soon the pair were about to go back to work.
I later spoke many more times, and even had him live on the radio from Ground Zero, including an interview on WGN Radio show, the first live interview conducted actually from Ground Zero, and only a few days later Christensen appeared on Bob Collins’ WGN Radio show.
Odd, I earned journalism awards when the real heroes were, of course, Chris and Servus.
Meanwhile FEMA phoned back with cell phone numbers for handlers, both in New York City and in Washington D.C. at the Pentagon. FEMA’s PR person told me the handlers generally refused – but they were also impressed that I wrote for Dog World. Some apparently had heard and actually wanted to speak with me.
Getting through on the phone was a work out I’d literally have to try dialing nearly 50 times, re-dial sure got a workout. The handlers spoke to me while working from the piles of debris once called the World Trade Center, others were in a tent across from the damaged Pentagon.
What they told me, I could never repeat in my newspaper column or even in this space…. That’s just how gory it was. These conversations took an emotional toll on me in Chicago, hundreds of miles away. I can’t imagine the impact of the devastation and human body parts on the handlers and also on the dogs who were experiencing sensory overload. Never mind, the long-term results of working while inhaling toxic fumes.
About a week later, as grieving family members waited by a pier to cross over to visit Ground Zero, people in the community spontaneously arrived with their dogs to provide comfort. I wrote about this – and called the dogs “comfort dogs.” As far I know, I was the first to use that term.
A few months later, I traveled to Boston to help honor search and rescue dog handlers at the Tufts Animal Expo.
I remember and always will remember the victims of September 11. I also remember all the heroes, including those – now all deceased – who happen to have four legs and the heroic dog handlers.