I have put off writing this article for many reasons, time being a factor, but emotional avoidance being another. Yesterday was Thanksgiving. Since my kids had other plans, I spent most of the day alone thinking about all of the people who were left without their loved ones, be it a husband or wife, a firefighter without his partner, or a child without a mother or father. That child would look at the parent with a glow in their eye, and say, "I want to be just like them when I grow up." So many children will be unable to do that now.
Rescue International deployed our Search and Rescue team, Specialty Dog Unit of Southeastern Pennsylvania, on September 16, 2001. It was one o' clock in the afternoon when I got the call. We had been deployed to work in the landfill on Staten Island. This is where they had been bringing all of the rubble and debris from everything that was left of the Twin Tower tragedy. Our team agreed to meet around 3:30 p.m. and head out.
Not including myself, there was two other team members leaving that day. Our other two members would meet us up there the following day. When we got the call, I wasn't exactly sure what we would be doing, so I began to pack, packing enough stuff for several days. Since we are always on call, our cars are always packed with most of our gear. As I ran around the house gathering up stuff to take, my daughter went to the store to get me batteries, film, toothpaste, and other things that I would need. My son came home from the firehouse and I gave him the list of things to do for my two other dogs that I would be leaving behind. My kids are wonderful; they kept everything going while I was gone. I couldn't have done that without them. Of course, Louie was full of himself and sticking very close. He knows the routine, and he was making sure he didn't miss anything.
As I met the two other team members, there were so many thoughts running through my head. We headed to New York and talked on our radios as we drove. We usually do this, and it was good just to hear everyone's thoughts and ideas. We stopped to eat as we waited for Bruce Barton and other members from Rescue International. They would be bringing one dog and the ground crew. We would meet them and then head to the landfill. When we got to the Verrazano Bridge, traffic was at a standstill for well over an hour, it was awful. Once we got across the bridge, we had a police escort to the landfill; that was quite a relief. The landfill sits on top of a large hill, and as we approached, I couldn't miss all of the lights and the large American flag that waved over the site. We pulled in at the checkpoint and they waved us right in. We drove up the hill towards the lights and I was amazed by what I saw. There were huge piles of debris from ground zero all lined up, covered in a blanket of ash. It was a very ominous sight to see. There was an overwhelming smell of death, like nothing you could imagine. This is when the reality of what actually happened hits you. This was not a picture I expected to see, and it is very hard for me to describe.
There was anywhere from seventy-five to one hundred men wearing white suits, hard hats and respirators; they were pulling and raking over these piles. The National Guard had tents set up there and there was also an army medic helicopter. There were backhoes and large dump trucks going in every direction. Eighteen wheelers were lined up waiting to be unloaded. It looked like a scene out of the X-files or M*A*S*H. It looked like a nuclear explosion; that's the only way to describe it. We parked and got out of our cars, and the smell was everywhere. Louie did many "heads up" in the direction of the piles, and I wondered how he was going to work this out. In cadaver training you try to teach them to pinpoint the scent source. We had done that in training when it was overloaded with scent, but nothing had been like this.
We got the dogs settled and went to the debriefing. We were the first dogs to ever work at the landfill, and based on the sight we saw when we came in, this was definitely going to be a test. I chose to work Louie on the second shift, he needed to adjust to what was going on, and I wanted to see how the other dogs were going to work under these conditions. We had to wear white TyVac suits, helmets, and respirators. We chose to wear surgical masks only, because otherwise, our dogs would not be able to hear us talk to them. We got dressed and got our dogs out so they would get used to the way we looked. After all, there were a hundred other men and women out there that looked just like us. They needed to be comfortable with this new look.
Watching the first two dogs working made it seem like a free-for-all. The men were throwing stuff as they separated the piles. Backhoes would be backing up, coming directly at the dogs as they did, and another one would be scooping up the row right next to them. There were other larger trucks pulling up to get filled, while others were being dumped. All of this was going on while you and your dog had to work. There were a lot of hazards around us. The first two dogs did great; they came up with a few finds. Each handler had a flanker to carry the bucket and radio. When we would make a find, the flanker would radio the command post, and tell them what we found. We would keep working our dogs while the flanker would take any finds over to the people at the D-MORT forensic tent. They would examine it and let us know if it was human or not. If it was human, they tagged it to be sent out for DNA testing.
It was my turn to work Louie. I put on his vest and my other gear and we started. My partner would be working his dog at the same time, so we would split the work; he took one side and I took the other. Most people in cadaver detection train their dogs off lead, but with all of the dangers; that was impossible. I wasn't sure how this was going to work. Louie was used to working off lead. I got to the piles and gave Louie his command for the cadaver, that's, "Mortimer." He started to work, and he seemed to be fine, but I could tell he was getting stressed. His body language was saying he was trying to work, but he was too overwhelmed. I gave him some more time to work, but after almost getting hit with some shrapnel that men were throwing about, he had enough. We worked for about twenty minutes. The men that were working there didn't know what to make of us. That later changed, and I later understood where they were coming from. They had been working twelve hour shifts since September 11, and then we come in with dogs, I think they thought we were holding them up. Their job was to find black boxes, and their hearts were hoping to find their people. Louie was stressed, and I was concerned for his safety, so I chose not to work him for the rest of the night.
I talked with my partner, Bob Will, to see how KEA had worked. He said she was looking for me and she had done okay. KEA is a two and a half years old Belgium Malinois. She does cadaver detection along with water rescue and is a top trailing dog. KEA is amazing to watch work. Bob and I train together, and we flank for one another, so we decided we would do the same thing here as we do in training. When Bob got KEA out this time, she did much better. It was around 1:00 a.m.; time was flying with all of the activity. KEA gave many "heads up"; the wind was in her face, and the area was saturated with scent. KEA was on lead and began dragging Bob towards the large piles that we had seen when we came in. These piles had been sitting for a few days and had not been gone through. She was working very intensely and as you got closer the smell was unbearable. She worked in and out of the metal and rubble, jumping over stuff and then coming back, trying to figure things out. She kept going over to this one large pile of rubble and kept looking at her dad, getting ready to bark. Barking is KEA's alert when she has a find. Then she would be off again trying to get to the source. As we walked around, she came to this large piece of flesh on the ground. Bob gave her a reward, but she still wasn't happy. She kept taking him over to this one pile where the smell was intense. We tried to move the metal for her, but it was too large. After spending much time there, we flagged it and moved on. We really weren't supposed to be down there, they wanted us to work on other piles. It was beautiful watching her work this out; she was so focused. She dragged us about one hundred and fifty yards to get to this pile. By the time we got back to the cars to let Louie out, it was time to catch a few hours of sleep. We slept in our cars, stinking from head to toe, with lights and the noise of the trucks surrounding us. Things shut down from around 3:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. for a shift change. We would get up and work around 6:00 a.m. They had other teams coming in to work the day shift. The next day machines went down to where KEA had alerted, and they tore the pile apart. They brought another dog down to work it and it turned out to be an ambulance with people in it. Wow! What a huge find. It wasn't my call, but KEA should have been allowed to work out the problem, since it had been hers from the beginning.
I brushed my teeth behind my car and put a new TyVac suit on and got Louie out to work. He didn't work much differently, but I changed some things. Bob would be flanking us this time. We started to look at this like it was training, so that's what we did. All of this was new for them, so we needed to teach them. This wasn't your typical victim lying in the woods or in some alley. The next K-9 shift came in so we had the afternoon to wash the dogs, take showers, and get some sleep. We would come back to work around midnight to work the night shift. We went to a place called home port; this was like a base camp for the volunteers, firemen, the National Guard, or anyone that helped out. The people there were outstanding. When they heard what we were doing with our dogs, they were so grateful and treated us like royalty. If you were there to help find their people they would have done anything for you. This was one thing about being there, you could feel the strong bond between these people.
After bathing the dogs and getting them settled, it was our turn. We spent twenty-four hours in these clothes that were covered with everything from the landfill. We ate and were exhausted. Although I was tired, I couldn't seem to relax, so I did my wash and took care of the dogs. I finally fell asleep for about an hour, when one of the other handlers was knocking on my window. It was time to do our shift. We headed back to the landfill again with a police escort. We got all of our gear on and I gave Louie his command. He took off with his nose to the ground. We were out there for twenty minutes and he had fourteen finds, and many more later on. Seeing him work like this was just great. It meant so much to me to see him happy and working. I guess he needed to get used to everything; he certainly seemed to have it all figured out. He wasn't afraid of the back hoes or the men; he was doing his job. I didn't want him to stress out, so we worked him for thirty minutes and then gave him a brea k. As Louie and I worked our shifts that night, he did awesome; it was as if he knew the importance of why we were there.
Now, when the dogs worked, the men working there moved out of their way. There was this Captain who always had a cigar…he worked the night shift. He just loved Louie, you would hear him say, "Watch out, here comes the Boxer! Watch this dog work! He's the best damn dog out there!" I wanted to give him one of Louie's trading cards (cards with S & R dogs featured, not unlike a baseball trading card), but I never got his name. We were earning the respect of the men that were working now that they knew we were trying to find their people. They would come to our cars and say, "Hey, we need a dog…" or they would bring us something for them to confirm. They might be working on a pile, and they would find something and come running over so we could get the dog to check it. That felt great! The night shift was a little more organized than the day shift. The piles went down in a certain way, and the trucks seemed to be managed a little better. It was a little easier working your dog at night.
In the next few days, this was all that we did. Sometimes you would get out there and find nothing, while other times it was overwhelming. Louie was holding up better than me. I was exhausted both emotionally and physically. We stayed four days, and I came home to work, the kids, and the house. This was difficult to do. We felt the strain of what we went through and then came home to try to put all the pieces back together in our regular lives. Louie and I were scheduled to come back up the following Sunday for another four day shift. The days in between were difficult. It was all I could do to keep from thinking about what was going on up there. I always become a little obsessed while I'm searching. This was something I took on and I felt I needed to be there doing my part.
I really thought Louie would be out for a day or so when we got home, but he was fine, and he was full of himself. We headed up that Sunday and started working once more. Louie had this all down by this point, and it was nothing for him to drag me thirty feet for a small piece of tissue. He blocked everything else out. He never noticed a backhoe coming towards him scooping up piles, while he was working down a row. Each pile was only down on the ground for about twenty minutes before it was scooped up. At one point, Louie was searching through a pile as the loader was coming, so he stopped, and then it was a standoff. We have all seen this with our Boxers, even after it went by, he was still challenging it! I had to laugh, this was a big turn around from his first two days searching.
We had some problems up there. We had to decide to put booties on our dogs or not. I chose not to, because I thought it might hamper Louie's ability to feel. I was more worried about him cutting his side or leg on some of the sharp steel, but he was fine. We did make sure we de-coned and checked them over carefully after working. There were toxins in the ground, since it was a landfill, and the EPA was keeping a good eye on that. We talked to them ourselves to make sure. Sometimes the dogs would hit on something that was only shredded paper holding the scent, sometimes soaked with blood. They were not wrong for doing this though. The dogs would hit on large pieces of steel, sometimes if you looked closely you could see human tissue there. The dogs were doing their job, but some of the things they were hitting on could not be used for DNA. None of the dogs were doing their trained alert, including Louie. He was taught to do a re-find; he'll go to the cadaver material and then come back to me to put his paw on my leg. I then tell him to show me, and he takes me to the source and sits. It wasn't possible for them to alert since we were working on lead, and the area was covered with so much scent, and there was so much tissue around. Whatever each dog did when they had a find was recorded in a book as we went along. We also had to worry about food and trash throughout the piles. Everyday they would bring in the regular trash from ground zero. This was awful, it made it difficult for the dogs to work, and the seagulls were always hovering when the trash came in. We kept a good eye on seagulls; they're smarter then you would think. If we saw them in a certain area, we tried to go over and check it out. Each dog had a number so if you found something, a number was given and they kept track of it at the command post. If you were sending up things that weren't real tissue, it was addressed. We all had things that were sent up to D-MORT which came back with a "no". One night, they were sending everything back, we figured out they only wanted stuff you could recognize. That was very frustrating, by this time, we knew what we were doing. Everything we found, we had another dog confirm it before it got sent up. This still didn't seem to matter, it didn't occur to us until we sent up a body part that you couldn't mistake, that they didn't want flesh tissue or a bone, it had to look like something. That was a bad night for all of us; we had doubted our dogs. The next day everything went back to normal though, so I'm not sure what was going on that night. We did motivators for the dogs in between shifts. We worked with a live victim or we put out cadaver aides, anything to keep it positive for them. To my knowledge, only two dogs were pulled and I think the handlers agreed that it was so stressful, they just weren't working like they should.
This time we were getting a little better sleep, we got to stay on a privately-owned Marine battleship which was docked at home port. The dogs got to sleep with us as well, and they even went right in the shower to get bathed. The ship was right across from the New York City skyline. What an incredible sight to see at night. You see beautiful buildings with their lights shining peacefully on the water as black smoke pours from the dark hollow where the towers once stood. It hit me then what had happened, and I was grateful to have the opportunity to help, however, I felt like I needed to do more. I still have trouble... there are days when I go to work and don't want to be there. It was all I could do to keep from losing it.
Two weeks after we were deployed they pulled the canine unit out of the landfill. Our job was done, but our mission wasn't, so it was hard to walk away. Our hearts were with the people waiting to be found so they could be sent home. This is why I train my dog, so he can send people home. It was very disheartening to feel you have let so many people down, but it was out of our hands. As I searched for missing angels up on the hill, I heard one of the trucks dumping debris, and this was a saying that came to me:
"We heard your cries through the twisted wreckage, found you, held you in our hands, and sent you home."
One of the very best parts in doing SAR work is that I do it with a Boxer, regardless of the skeptics out there. We train three or four days a week, mostly at night, in all kinds of weather. Louie is our team's only air scenting dog, which means he will search off lead in a given area for any generic human scent. He also does water rescue to search for drowning victims. When a person drowns, oils are released from their body, and they rise to the surface, creating a workable scent cone for the dog. This is all very fascinating to teach, watch, and learn. Louie has taught me much more than I have taught him. He does need to be challenged in training, so I change things for him. If he doesn't think, he shuts down. He isn't a dog that you can throw a toy for twenty times and he'll fetch it for you. That's not such a bad thing, but by changing things for him, he has the resources to pull from when he is on a search. SAR work is always different and always a challenge. Louie needs to be an
independent thinker; Boxers have this ability.
We did travel back to the landfill a few days after we were pulled. We had to pick up some things we had left. We stopped at Rescue 5 to pay our respects. They were hit hard by the tragedy. I guess we just needed to say good-bye. I could certainly go on about this event, it's changed the world…and it's certainly changed me. It seems to have taken its toll on the SAR World as well. Many people have left the teams to which they belonged and it has severed many friendships. If you are in this to make the paper or get that interview or if you come out only to make the big find, you're in it for the wrong reasons. As for Louie, he is still the same. He is ready for the next challenge. As for me, one day soon I hope to go through a day with out a tear or two falling. For now I get some strength from Louie, as we escape to our training for the next call.
I need to mention my two children, Holly and Rob whom I thank for everything they did, and do. Thanks to the members of my team who spent hours in the woods, in rain and snow, playing victims. To Robert, thank you for all the endless hours of training and brain storming about what a killer would do to a body, or if you were lost, where would you go? We have put in so many hours of discussion so that our dogs will be ready for anything. Thank you, Billie McFadden, for giving me Kate Schoyer's name. Thanks Kate, of Mannix Boxers, for this very special, healthy boy. He is an inspiration to me, and I hope he is to others, as well. I have to mention my boss, whose words were, "Go do what you need to do." Thank you Debra, for allowing me to do what I love. If you look around you can see that all angels aren't in heaven. Lastly, thanks to Kathy Cognata for letting us share our story.
Michele J. Verrall and K-9 partner Louie