Cowards were responsible for the unprovoked attacks on America on September 11, 2001. Heroes responded to those attacks. Among those heroes were at least 400 search-and-rescue dogs and their human handlers, who worked onsite at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania, where United Airlines flight 93 crashed.
The majority of the dogs worked at Ground Zero in New York City or at the Pentagon.
In 2011, Author Nona Kilgore Bauer told me, “I wanted to do as much as I could to honor these dogs and their handlers; I wanted to ensure Americans remembers their role.” On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, a special edition of Kilgore Bauer’s book, Dog Heroes of September 11th (Kennel Club Books, Allenhurst, NJ; $26.95) was made available, including a foreword by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
The coffee table book features dozens of photos, some published for the first time. Two images stand out—the pair most often associated with Ground Zero. The first is a shot of three New York City firefighters raising the American flag amid the rubble. The second shows Chris Selfridge’s Golden Retriever, Riley, lying in a Stokes basket (a basket stretcher typically used to rescue people) strapped in with harnesses, and pulled by a rope trolley system high above one of the deep canyons at Ground Zero.
“Riley wasn’t injured,” recalled Selfridge, of the Pennsylvania Urban Search and Rescue team deployed from Johnstown. “It was just quicker and safer to get him down [to street level] that way, where it took me about 30 minutes to walk to ground level from the huge piles of debris.”
Selfridge said U.S. Navy Photojournalist First Class Preston Keres happened to be there and snapped the indelible photo.
Not all dogs emerged unscathed from the disaster.
Tony and Annette Zintsmaster were deployed to Ground Zero with their two German Shepherds, Kaiser and Max. They were the only husband-and-wife FEMA team working as dog handlers, and were deployed from Indianapolis, Indiana. One of their Shepherds, Kaiser, suffered a deep cut on his front leg that required medical attention. Still, he missed only one shift.
Tony recalled a moment of drama when Max alerted that he had found someone alive on the edge of an opening. He did locate someone very much alive—a firefighter from a previous shift who was still on duty.
“The firefighter understood, and played along as if Max had really found someone,” said Tony. “Well, I suppose he did find someone.”
Sadly, no dogs found survivors at Ground Zero, but they served several unexpected functions. While none of the deployed dogs were trained as animal assisted-therapy dogs, they helped boost the spirits of firefighters, police officers, and many others on the scene, serving as comfort dogs (a description I offered in stories I wrote).
“Kaiser was clearly a social butterfly. Many rescuers stopped Kaiser, began to pet him, and give him hugs,” Tony recalled. “The dogs really did offer something in a way that people couldn’t.”
The majority of dogs on the scene were trained to find survivors, including a Doberman named Sunny. Shirley Hammond, of Palo Alto, California, said Sunny was trained to bark at live finds. But when Sunny began to signal by pawing at the ground, it was quickly evident that he was finding body parts.
Sunny was trained at a facility where cadaver dogs are trained. Hammond said that she believed this previous exposure to cadaver scent, however minimal, had somehow stuck with him. And Sunny wasn’t the only one; other dogs with little or no training in cadaver work began to find body parts. Most of these body parts wouldn’t have been recognizable or recoverable if the search had been left to people working without dogs, Hammond noted.
On one occasion, Sunny pawed at the ground in several spots in an area where a New York City Fire Department battalion chief had requested a search. Sunny found remains of a lost firefighter. As devastated as family members were, finding remains provided closure.
None of the dogs who worked on 9/11 are still with us.
On a trip to New York City, Selfridge happened to be walking by a fire station when he was recognized. The firefighters “all asked about Riley,” he recalled. “Then they took me inside the station and showed me two framed photos, one was of the firefighters raising the U.S. flag, and the other showed Riley in the Stokes basket.”
Kilgore Bauer said, “These are images I hope we never forget. I wrote this book because when most of us think of service to our country and the many heroes following September 11, we should include these dogs and their handlers.”
Tony Zintsmaster added, “It’s just something we did, and if we made some difference, I’m glad.”