Search and Rescue Dog Interviews from Ground Zero and the Pentagon

By Steve Dale

(This column is based
on exclusive interviews conducted via cell phone on Thursday, September 13,2001
with people on-the-scene at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

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Chris Christensen and his dog Servus at Ground Zero

While cell phone coverage was spotty, I was one of the few reporters doing interviews with search and rescuers - some dog handlers had heard of me and were happy to do interviews with the 'pet reporter,'  This is a Tribune Media Services story for my national newspaper column, as a result of this story and others, I was named the Feature Newspaper Writer of the Year of Editor & Publisher)

             Chris
Christensen was near the top of one of those piles of concrete, glass and
twisted steel that was once the World Trade Center in New York City. On
Thursday (September 13), his partner of nine years, Servus, a 9-year Belgian
Malinois  (a Belgium Shepherd), was
sniffing desperately for survivors. 

          

Search and Rescue1.jpg

Tony Zintsmaster with Kaiser, who got hurt on the job - but only missed one shift. Tony worked the night shift with Kaiser; while Tony's wife Annette worked days with Max. (photo by Bob Kaufman)

They
continued climbing, following what appeared to be footprints to a place where
what there was once an escalator - it's now compressed to appear more like a
slinky. Suddenly, Servus slid down 20-feet, landing face-first into a pile of
white ash-like debris. Christensen rushed to his lifeless trained search and
rescue dog. The ash-like materials were inhaled by Servus; he couldn't breath.
"I could see debris was lodged in his nose; I tried to get some out, but I just
didn't know what to do," Christensen says.

            He
hauled his 70-lb. partner over his shoulders, and somehow managed to run down the
treacherous hill, hollering, "I need help!"

            His
pleas didn't go unnoticed, reaching the bottom, he laid the lifeless dog down and
he looked up - surprised, he was instantly surrounded by over a dozen  firefighters, police officers and
thankfully at least one human nurse. It's that nurse who administered I/V
fluids right there on the sidewalk, and a firefighter provided suction. A police
officer poured water over the dog, who was now having convulsions - at least a
sign of life. The suction began to work, and what appeared to be liquid
concrete streamed uncontrollably from his dog's nose. "It kept coming and
coming," Christensen says.

            A paramedic offered a stretcher. With help, Christensen ran
down the street with his still convulsing pet, while that same nurse ran beside
him with the I/V. They flagged down one paramedic in order to get the dog to a
veterinary hospital. That paramedic actually refused to take him. However, a
police officer volunteered to take them, and  with lights flashing and sirens blaring, they were rushed to
the renowned Animal Medical Center.

          

             A team of five veterinarians and
technicians greeted the patient, "I've never been so happy to see veterinarians
in my life," says Christensen, with tears in his eyes. "In seven minutes they
had him stabilized." After vets observed Servus for a few hours, they released
him.

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Debra Tosh and her Labrador Abby. Abby's indication brought four families to closure and peace. Debra is the program director of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation. I encourage you to support their efforts:

Christensen described his dog's
nostrils looking "raw, and like someone scraped the insides with a razor." Naturally,
the two won't be able to continue efforts to find survivors, however,
Christensen remained to help in any way he can. 

Wiping away tears, Christensen says
he is fully aware that without the help he received on-the-scene, or if he
arrived at the vet clinic only moments later, his beloved dog would be dead.

Christensen isn't a part of an
organized Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) response team. He was
watching the horrors of 9/11 on TV like most  of America. "I just couldn't sit home; I had to do
something," he says. So, he and eight friends piled into two cars and drove
overnight from East Carondelet, MO (near St. Louis) to New York City. Typically
search and rescue dogs on bombsites or other disasters involving terrorism are
limited to FEMA teams, or other organized teams. Although individual volunteers
are strongly discouraged from simply showing up at a disaster site,
Christensen's help was very badly needed at the time.

         

servus - guardians of the night plaque.jpg

Servus passed away just a few years ago, and when he did I was mailed this plaque by Chris Christensen

  "I
can't believe I nearly lost him," says Christensen, who, pauses, holding back
more tears, he adds, "There's no words, just no words to describe."  He isn't only referring to the intense
bond created by training long hours with his canine partner for search and
rescue work. Christensen is a police officer, and Servus has saved his life -
twice. "I just couldn't let him die," he says.

            In
New York City, there were nine urban FEMA response teams called in totaling to
about 35 search and rescue and cadaver dogs - some arrived by military aircraft
from as far a Puerto Rico, others drove from neighboring states. In addition,
several invited dog teams, as well as dogs from the Port Authority and New York
Police Department are participating. In Washington, four teams, totaling about
15 dogs are at the Pentagon.

            Sadly,
the dogs at either location have been unable to locate a survivor. This leaves
the remaining work for dogs trained to find bodies or body parts. "These aren't
the dogs who receive attention on the networks," says Laura LoPresti, a dog
groomer from Monroe Township, MO, on the scene in New York with Osa, who is
3-years old and her father, Mikey, a 10-year old, German Shepherd dog. "Closure
is so important to those who have loved ones missing," she says. And in fact,
LoPresti and others on her team have located several bodies and body parts. 

search and rescue 3.jpg

Marti Vanada and Polly, Tony and Kaiser: Another day of heading to the office

            But
as it turns out, the dogs serve an unintended mission, a kind of animal
assisted therapy. LoPrestri says firefighters and police officers have
spontaneously walked up to her dogs and hugged them, some have shared secrets
only her dogs know. "They may not cry to their fellow firemen or police,
somehow they open up to the dogs," she says. "Just petting a dog provides
comfort to those who need it - and where I am now, so many need it."

            Bob
Sessions, a real estate agent in Dickerson, MD. was in the first FEMA team to
arrive at the Pentagon. He's working with a 5-year old black Labrador Retriever
named Sky. This is Sky's first major incident, but Sessions has been doing
search and rescue work for 17 years. At the Murrah Federal Building, Sessions
and his then-partner, Thunder, a black Lab who is now 13-years old, and retired
had a similar experience.  "When we
got down to the day care center - and began to find Fisher-Price toys, some couldn't
take it anymore," he says. "Rescuers asked to play fetch with Thunder. But then
they'd sneak off in a corner to just be with Thunder, or maybe to talk with
him."

Thunder Bob Sessions.jpg

Thunder passed away in 2004, after a magnificent career as a Search and Rescue dog

            Sessions
and Sky entered the Pentagon while it was still on fire. "Of course, it was
dangerous and it was very hot," he says on his cell phone, while standing only
a few feet from where the airplane plowed into the Pentagon. "We climbed to the
second floor to look for survivors. Before entering the search area, I placed
Sky on a 'sit/stay' and then I proceeded to insure his safety the best I could.
In reality our lives depend one another, but that's what we train for."

Sessions adds, "If these dogs only
knew what a difference they make. Certainly, there's nothing that can replace
precision of a dog's nose - and absolutely nothing that can replace a dog's
heart."

(© Tribune Media Services, Steve Dale)

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