Four-legged heroes at ground zero

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John Gilkey, an electrical engineer for the Lear Corporation in Carlisle, Pa., was doing the same thing most of the country was doing on the morning of Sept. 11: watching the news unfolding in New York City. He had called his wife, and the head of the Pennsylvania State Urban Search and Rescue Task Force. By the time he got back near the office television, and heard a plane had crashed into the Pentagon, he had three words for his boss: "I'm outta here."

"I didn't know where I was going, but I was going somewhere," said Gilkey, also a canine search specialist for the Pennsylvania State Urban Search and Rescue Task Force, one of 27 federally sanctioned Federal Emergency Management Agency task forces in the country. "I knew we had two situations going on: one in New York, and one in Washington, D.C. I knew that our task force was the second geographically closest to each of those incidents."

As Gilkey was driving home from work, he got the official page. He called his wife again, told her he would be back in a few weeks, and went home to pick up his dog Bear, an 8-year-old chocolate Labrador Retriever.

At the same time, at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Cindy Otto, associate professor of critical care and board-certified specialist in emergency medicine and critical care, was anticipating the same official call. Roseann Keller, an operations manager and vice president for Salomon Smith Barney, State College, Pa., left work as well. At noon, she got her official call to get Logan, her 7-year-old German Shepherd Dog. The task force was being activated. She had a matter of hours to assemble and be at the Harrisburg International Airport.

The bigger picture here is that Gilkey, Keller, and Dr. Otto are part of an official FEMA team deployed after a presidential declaration that a site is in a national state of emergency. The team is made up of 62 people, consisting of search-and-rescue, medical, logistics, and technical components.

The entire team eventually met up at the Philadelphia Fire Academy. By 7 p.m. EST, the buses and nine tons of equipment had arrived. An hour later the team was en route to New York.

It was a long ride, as it wasn't until midnight, Sept. 12 that the team headed into Manhattan.

The Pennsylvania Task Force-1 Search and Rescue Dogs and their handlers in front of the Merrill Lynch Building in New York City: Chris Selfridge and Riley; Bobbie Snyder and Willow; Dr. Cindy Otto; Roseann Keller and Logan; and John Gilkey and Bear.

On that drive, Gilkey, a longtime volunteer EMT for his local fire department, learned that Battalion Chief Special Operations Command Raymond Downey, veteran firefighter and representative to all 27 FEMA task forces, had been lost in the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings. "He's our spokesperson. He was in charge at the Oklahoma City bombing incident," he said. "I thought to myself, 'Now it's personal.'"

Dr. Otto kept her thoughts on the work ahead of the team. "My big reaction was that I want to get out there and get working," she said. "I wanted the dogs to get in there, and I wanted to make sure that they were able to do their jobs."

Keller's mind was on the possible survivors at the scene. "I was thinking that we would have hundreds of survivors in that rubble," she said.

The group, in addition to seven other state and federal task forces, set up their base of operation at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, on 34th Street, a few miles north of ground zero. Their work began at 6:00 that evening.

Dr. Otto, Gilkey, and Keller were transported to ground zero in Army half-tracks, as the people of New York City lined the streets and cheered on the team. The 45-minute ride seemed surreal to Keller, and then she started to see the smoke.

"It looked like a scene out of a bad movie," Keller said.

"Reading my notes [about the scene] makes my skin crawl," Dr. Otto said.

"Just the magnitude of things was incredible," Gilkey said. "I remember I had tripped over a fireman's ladder ... and I realize what I'm standing on is a [crushed] fire truck ... so, there's like 12 feet of rubble underneath me. It was then that I realized how bad things really were."

As a FEMA medical support specialist, Dr. Otto was deployed specifically to care for the search-and-rescue dogs. She was deployed to North Carolina after Hurricane Floyd hit in 1999, and had predicted what care the dogs were going to need. "[In] Oklahoma [we had] cuts and scrapes, and eye irritation. In New York City, we had a much bigger problem with dehydration, and a lot of stress-related problems," she said. "The dogs were working 12-hour shifts for eight days in a row, which was an endurance event that they're not usually trained for."

As the dogs searched, the handlers needed to keep the hazardous environment in mind. The biggest hazards to the dogs were combinations of dust, smoke, asbestos, and unknown toxins they could have inhaled.

"In one of our briefings, they read off about two pages of hazardous materials that could have been [at the scene]," Keller said.

Bear takes a break from searching at ground zero to have some Kool-Aid, provided by handler John Gilkey.

The second hazard was the terrain. Gilkey said there was always a danger of slipping on the broken glass, the metal shards, and the twisted steel from the buildings.

The next hazard was voids, where dogs could have fallen and been trapped. "[One dog] fell down some hole and he ended up swimming in diesel fuel," Dr. Otto said.

And finally, there were hot spots. "There were places that they asked Logan to search where I saw steam coming out of the ground," Keller said.

In the searches, Gilkey and Keller were desperate to hear a continuous bark, the signal that their dogs had picked up the scent of a live person. They did a few times, only to find that Logan and Bear had found firefighters working in the voids, trying to recover victims. No victims were ever found by the Pennsylvania team. The dogs were desperate, too. If no live victims were discovered, Bear would not get his favorite Frisbee as a reward, and Logan her piece of garden hose. The handlers did their best, as they were trained, to keep the dogs' spirits up.

"My dog loves [people] clapping," Keller said. "As we would drive to and from the scene, the clapping and cheering people lined up on the streets made her so excited. She thought they were there to see her."

"Everyone has asked me if the dogs got depressed," Gilkey said. "The dog doesn't know. At best, [I can] equate that Bear would be frustrated because he wasn't getting his Frisbee."

At the end of the shifts, the handlers would decontaminate the dogs and give them a well-deserved meal. Their medical care, though crucial, was not for serious injuries. "A lot of the dogs did not have personal veterinary support like Dr. Otto," Gilkey said. "If there was anything we needed we went to Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams."

"I think Logan and Bear were lucky," Dr. Otto said. "My biggest job there was to try and prevent injuries ... I would monitor how long they were out there and get them back in. Once they were in, we could flush their eyes, we could check their feet, we were making sure they were getting some rest, and we were making sure they were drinking."

That Pennsylvania team stayed in New York City until Sept. 19, when a team from Texas relieved them. In retrospect, Gilkey and Keller, who spent years training and caring for the dogs that would be sent to the worst disaster the United States has seen, wished they could have done more. At the same time, they were so proud of their dogs.

"Now, Bear will retire as an advanced disaster dog because of his certification and his experience [in New York City]," Gilkey said. "He went seven days without serious injury, [alerting to] live and dead people, everything I trained him to do."

"When we left, I really hated to leave," Keller said, "because I felt like it wasn't done. They were sending in another team, and talking about sending us in for a second rotation, and I was glad about that."

At press time in early November, only a few New York City police dogs were searching ground zero and the scene at Staten Island, where the majority of the rubble and debris had been moved.