By Steve Dale
Photo: Chris Christensen and his dog Servus at Ground Zero
(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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”