Search and rescue dogs: the unknown heroes of 9/11
In the immediate days that followed the attack in New York on September 11, 2001, more than 300 search and rescue dogs (SAR) scoured Ground Zero for survivors. They were the unknown heroes of 9/11. Many, if not all, have died by now, 13 years later.
Let’s honor them on the anniversary of the tragedy as a reminder that we should cherish man’s best friend. The dogs were an integral part of the rescue teams. Trained dogs are capable of digging into small areas inaccessible to workers, and have an acute sense of smell to lead them to survivors. Not only they saved lives, they later served to find items such as jewelry that could be returned to victims’ families or be used in the investigation of the casualties.
Genelle Guzman-McMillan was working in her office in the World Trade Center on September 11. After hearing a terrible noise, she raced down the stairs, but the building collapsed around her. Twenty-seven hours later, she would be the final living person rescued from the rubble at Ground Zero. She was not found by a human equipped with special gear. She was saved by a dog.
Still more canines served as therapy dogs, helping survivors cope with their emotional trauma. And not only in the aftermath of 9/11 but also after the Boston Marathon, they brought peace to the victims.
Another poignant story is that of Michael Hingson, a blind World Trade Center employee who was led safely out of the building by his canine companion, a yellow Labrador retriever named Roselle.
“I have the solemn obligation to inform you that my hero guide dog, Roselle, who was with me in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, passed away, Sunday, June 26, 2011 at 8:52 PM. I am sad, of course, because I will miss Roselle so very much, more than any of my other guide dogs. I write with joy because Roselle is in a better place, no longer feeling pain, while I get to have so many fond memories of her,” wrote Michael Hingson in his blog in honor of Roselle.
Most of the search and rescue dogs were Labradors or Golden Retrievers on 9/11. German shepherds are a popular SAR breed — they’re typically smart, obedient and agile, and their double-layered coat insulates against severe weather conditions. Hunting and herding dogs like Labrador and golden retrievers and border collies tend to be good at SAR work, too, because they have a very strong prey drive. In urban disasters like the one on 9/11, where people are trapped beneath precarious piles of debris, a dog’s strength, confidence and agility are key. Even more important, though, is obedience: An out-of-control dog is a liability in search situations. This is where SAR training is key.
At its most basic, the job of a SAR dog has two components: Find the origin of a human scent and let the handler know where it is. Experts estimate that a single SAR dog can accomplish the work of 20 to 30 human searchers. It’s not just about smell, either — dogs’ superior hearing and night vision also come into play. Time is always an issue in search and rescue. In an avalanche situation, for instance, approximately 90 percent of victims are alive 15 minutes after burial; 35 minutes after burial, only 30 percent of victims are alive.
Experts estimate that a single SAR dog can accomplish the work of 20 to 30 human searchers. It’s not just about smell, either — dogs’ superior hearing and night vision also come into play. Time is always an issue in search and rescue. In an avalanche situation, for instance, approximately 90 percent of victims are alive 15 minutes after burial; 35 minutes after burial, only 30 percent of victims are alive.
Not all SAR dogs perform the same type of search. There are tracking (or trailing) dogs, and others are air-scent (or area-search) dogs. Air-scenters might specialize in a particular type of search, such as: cadaver, water, avalanche, urban disasters, wilderness or evidence/article.
In major disasters like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001 and the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, air-scent dogs in all specialty areas assisted in the search for survivors. This actually led to problems for some of the dogs, because SAR dogs trained to find living people can become discouraged when they find only dead bodies. The dogs understand that live finds are preferable, partly due to their training, partly due to the reactions of their handler and partly because live people can usually give some form of feedback — and the dogs crave feedback. At Oklahoma City and Ground Zero, handlers and firefighters hid in the rubble to give the dogs a living person to find so they could feel successful and get their reward.
Speaking of these dogs: Love is not enough.
– Rosana Ubanell for voxxi.com. Rosana is a journalist and a writer. Since 2000, she has been the Assignment Editor of American Airlines’ Spanish-language magazine Nexos. In 2011 she released her first novel Volver a Morir, a Spanish-language detective novel based in the city of Miami.