By Christi Nichols
Last Sunday at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, NJ, the organization Finding One Another (FOA) honored the working dog teams who were on the scene at Ground Zero following the 9/11 attacks.
Dozens of dogs worked right along side the rescue groups to search for people after the buildings went down. Their handlers were all volunteers; search-and-rescue dog owners pay for their dogs’ training and veterinary care out of their own pocket. On Sunday, US Senator Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, gave the opening address at a recognition ceremony for these teams, and over 1000 other teams who came to honor the dog and dog owners who were on the scene on that fateful day.
Many of them are featured in Dog Heroes of September 11th, a book which includes the tales of handlers who brought dogs to search for bodies in the wreckage. One of them, Sonny Whynman, recalls:
“When we first arrived it was like walking into hell. People were running in all different directions. There were dozens of firefighters and they were all pleading, ‘Bring your search dog over here. I said to Piper, ‘Go Find.’ He would paw or whine and then look up at me. And as soon as he put his nose to the ground, the firefighters were all over him. They were so crazed to find one of their brothers buried where Piper had indicated. That’s when I started feeling the deep depression they were feeling. There were about 10 or 12 dogs on our search team. In all, Piper and his buddies found 15 bodies.”
When they weren’t sniffing the ground for bodies, the dogs were providing another kind of much-needed aid.
Writes Whynman: “One firefighter came up to me, with hollow eyes and sunken cheeks and desperation on his face. He asked if he could pet my dog. Then he leaned down and gave Piper a big hug and whispered something in his ear. Piper looked at him and wagged his tail. When the firefighter left, he had just a tiny smile on his face.”
According to Abigail Gary, a spokesman of the FOA, most of the working dogs at this Sunday’s ceremony were German Shepherds and Labradors, but there were also greyhounds and various other breeds in attendance. Twenty of the 9/ll dogs who are still alive were in attendance on Sunday. The veterinarians were also recognized for their hard work at the scene; many put in over 12 hour shifts checking on the dogs’ health to ensure they could go back in to search for people.
This year, the FOA presented the first ever Sirius Courage Award, named after Sirius, the explosive detection dog that worked at the World Trade Center for more than a year before the attacks. Trapped in the sub-level office where he and his handler worked, he is the only dog believed to have been killed in the attacks. The award was given to the families of SSGT Zainah Caye Creamer and Officer John Douangdara. SSGT Zainah Caye Creamer was the first woman military working dog handler killed in combat in the history of the United States. She died in Afghanistan on January 12, 2011. Petty Officer First Class John Douangdara, USN, was killed along with his canine partner Bart in the attack on the SEAL helicopter in Afghanistan on August 6, 2011 that claimed the lives of 29 of their fellow service members.
Following the ceremony, seventeen organizations signed the Convention on Cooperation Among Working Dog Organizations, which was first signed in Topeka, Kansas in 2008. The document urges AKC Parent Clubs, working dog clubs and organizations to cooperate with Homeland Security and other agencies to “develop programs designed to provide the ready supply of American working dogs” for use in protecting America.
This ceremony not only provided recognition to all the hard-working dog teams but it also served as a healing event. Abigail Gary spoke to several individuals recalling the horrendous experience to one another. “The beams were too hot for the dogs to even walk on,” one rescue worker said.
One volunteer from a canine rescue team said he was hesitant to come. He did not want to relive the atrocities. In the end, he was glad he attended. “This was so wonderful. I was able to feel the good things we did that day to help get over the revulsion.”