Steve's Personal Thoughts 5 Years Later


Like most people, I’ll never forget where I was on September 11, 2001.  When I realized America had been attacked, my first thought was for my wife. I must have dialed Robin 500 times in 2 minutes. 

At that time, she was working in a high rise across the street from Sear’s Tower, a potential target. I was pretty much ordering 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 remember what a beautiful day it was – maybe that’s why I took the dogs just the couple of blocks to the train station to greet her. When we walked home as I saw some lingering planes still flying on their way to O’Hare, I actually thought – what if one hits a high rise building near where we live? 

When we arrived home, we sat and watched, horrified and numb. Tears streamed from our eyes. One of our dogs, Lucy, jumped up on the sofa and began to whimper. She had never done that before. And has not done it since. 

Robin knew people who worked at the World Trade Center, and had sometimes visited them on business. She found out later, some had died that day. 

By the next morning, I thought, “I have to do something.” I contacted FEMA. Now, five years later, I’m astonished that I got through in the first place, and even more astonished FEMA took my request to speak to search and rescue dog handlers seriously.   

I don’t honestly recall how I first heard about Chris Christensen, a St. Louis area police officer, who had arrived on the scene before any of the FEMA dogs with his search and rescue dog Sevus, a Belgian Malinois. He drove through the night from St. Louis. I caught up with Chris the first time from the Animal Medical Center. Servus was rushed there by ambulance after an accident. Chris was in tears, telling me how he thought he’d lose his beloved friend – a friend who had once saved his life. Servus not only survived, but he began to work at Ground Zero again. The story Chris told me was as dramatic as it gets, and featured in my first newspaper column post 9/11, and later told in Dog World. 

Soon, FEMA phoned back with cell phone numbers for handlers, both in New York City and in Washington D.C. at the Pentagon. FEMA told me the handlers generally refused at first, and didn’t much care about the major newspapers my column appears in – but they were impressed that I wrote for Dog World. 

Sometimes I’d literally have to try nearly 50 times, re-dial sure got a workout – but eventually I got through to several search and rescue dog handlers. They spoke to me while working, from the mountain 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, the death 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. 

I was just rushing to file my stories – first for my syndicated newspaper column. When my editor gasped over the phone, “Steve, how, how did you…I mean how did you get this?” Only then did I realize that I had something no other reporter had. Those print stories of accounts from dog handlers on the scene, which were followed by equally powerful radio interviews – were likely the first reports in the media to focus on the search and rescue dogs. I’m grateful if in some way my exposure led to further coverage from additional media outlets, which without a doubt led to a new awareness and appreciation of search and rescue dogs, and their handlers. 

A few months later, I traveled to Boston to help honor search and rescue dog handlers at the Tufts Animal Expo.  

Forget about baseball players on steroids (or not) or basketball players talking trash and making millions, the dogs and their handlers are among the real heroes in America. For one thing, the majority of them are police or fire fighters – which tells you something about them right off. . . They are all about helping others. 

It seems everyone out there describe these dogs as selfless and hard working. That’s true. But then, if the handlers are doing their jobs – to a degree, the dogs are just having fun working. When the work is right, and motivating, all dogs enjoy a job. It’s the dog handlers who leave their families on a moments notice to help others in need. We’ve become a pretty egocentric society. These folks are wholly altruistic, often times contributing financially, not to mention to enormous commitment of time to train a dog and then keep that dog in good form. 

Of course, I remember and always will remember the victims of 9/11. Robin will remember the names of those she knew. . . But this should not diminish us remembering and even celebrating the triumph of the first responders, including the human/canine teams. Watching them in action – as we did as a nation – illustrates the true definition of teamwork. I am grateful for their heroism. For whether they like it or not, I do call them heroic.

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On a personal note, New York City-based editor Beth Adelman was the editor of those Dog World stories, and a voice with equal passion to mine. Beth is my favorite editor – and you can see why if you open the Dog World stories.