ANNA AT GROUND ZERO
Excerpted from “Whispering Secrets to Anna at Ground Zero” by Sarah R. Atlas from ANGEL DOGS WITH A MISSION by Allen and Linda Anderson (New World Library, 2008). Reprinted with permission.
No billboards advertise, “Here’s how to get involved in search-and-rescue work.” Yet I had wanted for a long time to give this type of service. I remember watching a television program in which search-and-rescue dogs responded to an earthquake in a far-off land. The handlers and dogs worked under the worst conditions to assist those in life-and-death situations. I wondered whether I ever would be in the right circumstances to find the best dog to fulfill my dream.
I had been involved with my older dog in schutzhund, a sport that originated in Germany for demonstrating a dog’s intelligence and courage. It involves competing in a dog triathlon that includes obedience training, tracking, and protection work. So I had some idea of the time and energy commitment required to train a dog to a high level of ability.
I decided to add a puppy to my household of two dogs. In February 1998 I went to look at a litter of German shepherd puppies from imported bloodlines. As I pondered which to choose, a little bicolored pup marched over, grabbed my pants leg, and tugged on it. I said, “I guess I’ve been picked.” Her name was Anna. With that first connection, we would begin the journey of a lifetime.
I’d had quite a few dogs over the years, but right away I could tell that Anna was different from all the rest. She seemed to know what I was thinking before I asked her to do things. Also, she was very protective. Anna and I were in tune and so connected with each other that, even when separated physically, I felt her presence with me. This was a unique spiritual experience for me to have with a dog.
While at my job one day, I happened to have a conversation with a married couple, Sharon and Rich. They were both emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and were also involved in search-and-rescue work with their dogs. I told them about my puppy, Anna, and that she would be perfect in this type of job. They rolled their eyes, because everyone thinks he or she has a perfect dog. “Maybe your dog can find you,” Sharon said, “but search-and-rescue dogs must look for strangers.”
Rich and Sharon invited me to come to their house so they could evaluate my dog to see if she would be suitable for search-and-rescue training. An important trait for the dog to have is a hunting drive. They repeatedly threw balls into the woods to see if Anna would keep focused on hunting for and finding them. They also had me take Anna away after they threw a ball and return with her five minutes later to see if she continued to look for the ball. To my delight Anna tested extremely well.
Sharon and Rich spent hundreds of hours teaching Anna and me the skills we would need to become a search-and-rescue dog team. One day Rich told me that New Jersey Task Force One, the state’s urban search-and-rescue team, was holding a screening for dogs and handlers to become new members. There are only twelve positions on a search-and-rescue team, so only the most talented dogs are selected to join.
Anna was six weeks pregnant when I took her through the screening process. Not only did we make it onto the team’s roster but we also passed with high marks. Soon afterward, Anna had her litter. A year later, we were called to serve at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Anna at the World Trade Center
Within hours after the airplanes had crashed into the Twin Towers, Anna and I were part of the first search-and-rescue teams arriving at the World Trade Center. As we entered the search area, all that was left of the magnificent Twin Towers were mounds of twisted steel, cables, and white ash, which covered everything. At one point we were halted in our progress with the search as World Trade Center building 7 collapsed onto the pile of debris.
It was frightening with so much commotion. Normally dogs become very intense and excited as they pull ahead to begin their searches. But Anna remained quiet, even stoic, as she looked at the horrible scene in front of us. I confided to Anna that I was scared. I stressed to her that what we were about to do here was important work. She leaned against me as if she understood the gravity of the situation.
This was Anna’s first mission. Although we had been through a lot of training, no amount could have prepared us for the sight that lay before us. Everybody looked like little ants against rubble piles of steel and pulverized concrete.
It was so tough. A lot of firemen and cops bent down and cried, whispering into Anna’s ears that day. Anna licked the faces of people as she listened to their sorrows and kept their secrets.
Working at Ground Zero was bizarre and eerie. Something very strange happened down there that I have not told many people. Although there were no signs of life, I could hear high-pitched cries and moaning. I saw what looked like white clouds going to heaven. I thought that the moans I heard must have been final cries of spirits leaving their bodies though they did not want to go. Yet they were finally being released. Later on, a fireman who had also worked at Ground Zero said he experienced exactly the same things.
At night we stayed in the Javits Center parking garage, sleeping on blankets on the floor. That first night, Anna and I were exhausted, and I reached over to hug her. She leaned on me and whimpered as we comforted each other.
On the last shift we worked at Ground Zero, a fire chief came up to me and said, “I know remains are up there, but we don’t know where to begin searching.” So I sent Anna to search in places where none of us could climb. I had to use voice and hand signals to direct her.
She showed interest in two spots. She wasn’t certified as a cadaver dog, but as closely as we had worked with our search-and-rescue dogs, we understood their body language. Anna stared back at me with intensity until I acknowledged that she must have picked up the scent of remains. Then she walked back down from the area, and I pointed out the locations to the fire chief.
By this time Anna’s tongue was turning purple, her breathing was labored, and her eyes looked listless. She was showing signs of heat stroke. I called my task force leader and said that my dog needed medical attention and IV fluids. As I walked back to the vehicle for Anna, a man held up a picture and thrust it toward me. He said, “Please, have you seen my son? Don’t leave my son. He’s down there somewhere.”
I tried to explain to the distraught man that my dog was exhausted, and other dogs were coming. The heat was unbearable from fires still burning. The man pulled something out of a brown paper bag and showed it to me. “This is my son’s shirt,” he said. I got emotional and had to turn away. Our task force leader explained to the man that rested search dogs were en route to the site.
After I made it to the search and rescue vehicle, I heard a call on the radio. A voice confirmed that the searchers had located the remains of two victims in Anna’s search area.
After September 11
Following our service on September 11, we packed our belongings and said good-bye to fellow rescuers, well-wishers, and janitorial staff who had become like family. We thanked the police officers who guarded us and the Salvation Army volunteers who fed and consoled us.
Then we boarded busses with our tired dogs, their coats thick with soot and an awful smell that would be almost impossible to remove. As our bus pulled out of the Javits Center garage and headed down the West Side Highway, we passed people who began to cheer and shout, “Thank you. Thank you. You are our heroes.”
Upon returning to our home base at the Lakehurst Naval Air Engineering Station, we were greeted by scores of television reporters who pushed microphones toward our faces. Families rushed to hug us. The U.S. Navy band played, and the New Jersey State Police performed “Amazing Grace” on their bagpipes.
In 2007, for the first time, my foundation was able to give two $500 grants to assist search-and-rescue dog handlers whose dogs were unable to work or had died due to age, illness, or injury. Our goal is to give ten $1,000 grants per year to help handlers replace K-9s.
Not a day goes by without my thinking of Ann. I began Search and Rescue Dog Foundation in her honor, to help my fellow volunteer search-and-rescue workers and to encourage young people to perform this type of service. I think Anna would have liked that.
Sarah R. Atlas from Barrington, New Jersey, is a member of the New Jersey Task Force One Urban Search and Rescue Team. She shares her life and home with search-and-rescue partner Tango; her other canine partner, Kaylee, a human-remains recovery dog; and Szara, who is a pet-therapy dog. Sarah is founder of the nonprofit 501c(3) charity, The Search & Rescue Dog Foundation, Inc. To learn more, visit http://www.sardogfoundation.org.
SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT:
Has a dog inspired you to selflessly serve the greater good?