Like most people, I'll never forget where I was on 9/11. When I realized America had been attacked, my first thought was for my wife, Robin. At that time, she was working in a high-rise building across the street from the Sears Tower in Chicago, a potential target. I was pleading with her to come home when an announcement came over her company's P.A. system directing employees to leave.
Everyone was fleeing downtown Chicago — even people who lived there. I remember what a beautiful day it was, as I walked our dogs the few blocks to the train station to greet her. When we arrived home, we sat and watched TV, horrified and numb. Tears streamed from our eyes. One of our dogs, Lucy, jumped on the sofa and began to whimper. She'd never done that before, and has not done it since.
Robin knew people who worked at the World Trade Center, and had sometimes visited them on business. She found out later that some had died that day.
By the next morning, I thought, "I have to do something."
I contacted FEMA. Thinking back on it, I'm astonished I got through, and more astonished that FEMA took seriously my request to speak to search-and-rescue dog handlers.
I don't recall how I first heard about Chris Christensen, a St. Louis-area police officer. He had arrived on the scene in New York City before most of the FEMA dogs with his search-and-rescue dog, Servus, a Belgian Malinois.
Chris drove through the night from St. Louis.
I caught up with him by phone at the Animal Medical Center not far from the World Trade Center. Servus had been rushed there by ambulance after being injured. Chris was in tears, telling me how he thought he'd lose his beloved friend — a friend who had twice saved his life. Servus not only survived but began to work again at the ruins of the Twin Towers. The story Chris told me was as dramatic as it gets, and was featured in my first column after 9/11.
Soon, FEMA phoned back with cell phone numbers for other dog handlers in New York City and Washington, D.C., at the Pentagon. FEMA told me the handlers generally refused all interviews, but because I was a dog writer, they were eager. Some were familiar with my work.
Eventually, I got through to several of the handlers. They spoke to me while working from the mountain of debris once called the World Trade Center. Others were in a tent across from the damaged Pentagon.
Their graphic descriptions of the debris (including human body parts) and the smell on the site I will never write about. I can't imagine the impact of the devastation and pervasive death on the handlers and their dogs who were experiencing sensory overload — not to mention the long-term effects of working while inhaling toxic fumes.
I was just rushing to file my syndicated column when my editor gasped over the phone, "Steve, how did you get this?"
Only then did I realize that I had something no other reporter possessed. My series of columns on the dog handlers at the scene were likely the first media reports on the search-and-rescue dogs. I'm grateful if in some way they led to further coverage, which without a doubt led to a new awareness and appreciation of these dogs and their handlers.
A few months later, I traveled to Boston to help honor search-and-rescue dog handlers at the Tufts Animal Expo.
Forget about those who we say are heroes, like baseball players on steroids (or not) or basketball players talking trash and making millions.
These selfless handlers and their dogs were real heroes. For one thing, the majority of the handlers were police officers or firefighters, which tells you something about them right off.
Of course, I'll always remember the victims of 9/11. Robin will remember the names of those she knew. But this should not diminish our admiration for the first responders, including the human/canine teams. Watching them in action provided a true definition of heroism.
STEVE DALE welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column. Write to Steve at Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207. Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.