September 11, 2013: The HERO DOGS of 9/11

~by Susi Pittman

It was a day that no one over the age of seven will forget. A day of such shock and violence, it left an indelible mark on each of our hearts, wherever we were that day!

Within moments of the final collapse of both Twin Towers and the crash of the jetliner into the Pentagon, Search and Rescue Dogs (SAR) were being called up in vast numbers to work towards the recovery of the survivors. To quote Bob Sessions, owner of “Sky” a black lab SAR dog, “There’s nothing that can replace the precision of a dog’s nose—and absolutely nothing that can replace a dog’s heart.”

There were hundreds of brave firefighters, police, EMT’s , workers and dogs working side by side, sharing the risks of bodily injury and exposure to a myriad of unknown toxins. The dogs were able to pick up on perspiration and respiration of people that might be buried under the rubble and able to hear the faint sounds of human breathing or voice, the dogs successfully finding the living and the dead.

The dogs being agile could work the piles of debris, getting into crevices and areas that were impossible for their human counterparts.

Perhaps, the saddest part of the search and rescue process, is that there were not many survivors. To a SAR dog, finding the human they seek is like candy at Christmas…they absolutely rejoice in the reunion! The dogs themselves had to find comfort in many cases from their handlers and owners, as they too needed consolation upon finding the dead and scattered human remains.

These marvelous dogs are invaluable helpers in their abilities to seek and find, but they are also family members to those who own and handle them. Ask any handler and they will tell you, they are deeply loved and they are FAMILY!

Two such dogs were RILEY & BAILEY owned by Eileen Roemer. Riley is a beautiful Golden Retriever and Bailey was rescued from animal control. Both dogs learned to be SAR dogs with great talent! On the morning of September 11, 2001, Eileen was working at the Pentagon. She left the building at 7:30 am and at 9:43 AM,  American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon killing the person who had replaced her. She returned to the scene with her SAR dogs, Riley and Bailey to search for the living and the dead.

As God would have it, the SAR Hero Dogs of 9/11 ended up serving yet another purpose in their mission…animal assisted therapy. Firefighters and police officers would spontaneously walk up to the dogs and hug them, sharing secrets only the dog would know. The rescue workers may have found it hard to cry to their fellow workers, but they would open up to the dogs. So many workers would come to rest by the tired dogs, just petting them, allowing the tired animal to look in their eyes, tail wagging and then receiving the lick of a warm tongue as shared solace.

As a matter of statistics, FEMA at the time had 28 urban search and rescue task forces in the U.S. There were well over 400 dogs deployed with participation by private search and rescue organizations also. The SEARCH DOG FOUNDATION had 13 teams respond and there were still more from other SAR groups. Dogs and handlers in most all cases were volunteers.

A follow up health study has been done and continues on the Hero Dogs of 9/11. The study showed that the biggest problem for the dogs was dehydration and stress. The dogs worked 12 hour shifts, enduring cuts on their feet and noses, and little rest. The recommendations coming from the study state dogs on future deployments have sufficient hydration and adequate rest areas away from the chaos and noise of the search site.

We honor today the gray muzzles and clouded eyes that are still with us. It has been the responsibility of a grateful nation to see that the health and well-being of these canine heroes was assured and for the few that remain with us…remains assured.


Susi Pittman is founder of and Owner-President of Twin Oaks Publishing; she is author of Animals in Heaven? Catholics Want to Know!; an advocate for the Florida Catholic Conference; a member of the St. Joseph’s Catholic Council of Women in Jacksonville, Florida; an Associate of the Sisters of St. Joseph, St. Augustine;a member of the Florida Publishers Association, Independent Book Publishers Association, the National Association of Professional Women, the ASPCA, the Humane Society of the United States and the National Audubon society.

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