Report from Ground Zero

After a delay at the Lincoln Tunnel for a bomb scare, we arrived at the Javits Convention Center, the base of operations (called the “BOO”), at about midnight Sept. 11. By 3 a.m. we were ready to go to work.

The team was divided into the day shift and the night shift. It was decided that local veterinary care would be harder to obtain at night, so I was on the night shift. The night search dogs were

Logan, the German shepherd, and Bear, the chocolate Labrador retriever, along with their handlers. Since our forward base in the Merrill Lynch building near Ground Zero was in close proximity to the New Jersey team, I also kept an eye on their dogs and any other dogs that were in need of care.

Cheering New Yorkers

What was a typical night at Ground Zero? We would load up on buses or military vehicles for the trip to the site. The streets were lined with New Yorkers cheering the workers on. It was a powerful way to start a shift.

The busiest component of the team was the search component—the dogs and the technical search that used specialized cameras and listening devices. The dogs would be sent out to the “pile” with the handlers. They would search areas of rubble looking for live victims. Although they are trained for “live find,” it soon became evident that the dogs were also able to identify the remains of victims.

Unlike the people, who wore respirators while working, the dogs were exposed to all of the smoke, asbestos, dust and other potential toxins. Also unlike the workers, who were equipped with protective footwear, the dogs were barefoot. The dogs were also at risk for dehydration and falls.

Treating the dogs

If Bear and Logan were working the same section of the pile, I would sometimes accompany them there. Otherwise, I would remain at the forward base and have them return on a regular cycle to rinse their eyes, check their feet and give them a chance to rest and drink. I was equipped to provide fluids, bandage wounds and treat minor problems. Other conditions were treated by the Suffolk County (N.Y.) Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals van, located about five blocks north of Ground Zero. They also provided a decontamination (bath) facility.

Despite all of the risks, the dogs had minimal problems. The biggest problem was dehydration, probably a result of overwork. Cut pads were remarkably infrequent despite the fact that the dogs didn’t wear boots, which interfere with their ability to climb. The dogs were tired and because they were not finding live victims, the dogs didn’t have the opportunity to play—their reward for a live find. At times, people would hide in the nearby park so that the dogs could find them and be given the opportunity to play. It was clear by the number of people willing to hide and wanting to play with the dogs that it wasn’t only the dogs who had a deficiency of playtime.

At about 8:30 in the morning, the day crew would arrive and relieve us. We were bused back to the BOO, where we would decontaminate our clothes, shower, eat and eventually fall asleep. On average we got three to four hours of sleep before it all started again. We were relieved by the team from Texas on the 19th.

It was a hard time, but a powerful time. The swell of support from the citizens of New York and the entire country was incredible. Daily we would receive e-mails of support, letters from children and encouragement from strangers. The spirit of America has risen and will not be beaten down.

Cynthia Otto, assistant professor of critical care clinical studies in the School of Veterinary Medicine, spent eight days in New York (Sept. 11 to 19) with Pennsylvania Task Force One, one of 28 Urban Search and Rescue Teams nationwide that respond to disasters. She shared her experiences in the VHUP newsletter, and she agreed to let us share them with the entire Penn community.

Otto will speak about her work at Ground Zero at VHUP on Tuesday, Oct. 30. See “What’s On,” page 6.

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Originally published on October 25, 2001