This Saturday will mark a somber milestone in US history: it will be the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. People around the world are remembering the countless lives affected by 9/11: the people we lost, the first responders who saved lives, and the people who worked at Ground Zero in the aftermath.
And people are also remembering all the dogs who played a crucial part in the aftermath of 9/11, who searched the rubble for survivors and helped bring comfort and morale to emergency workers.
While all of these rescue dogs have since passed away, their legacy is remembered 20 years later.
Search and rescue dogs
Within hours of the destruction of the World Trade Center, hundreds of rescue workers arrived at Ground Zero, including 300 search-and-rescue dogs.
The dogs were crucial in the initial search. The dogs, specially trained for disaster areas like this, were able to sniff for survivors and reach places that humans couldn’t among the still-smoldering debris.
Genelle Guzman-McMillan, a World Trade Center office worker who was caught in the collapse, was rescued by one of these dogs, 27 hours later. “It’s so awesome that the dogs could have this kind of sense, to find people buried under the rubble,” Guzman-McMillan said in the Animal Planet documentary “Hero Dogs of 9/11,” according to Today.
“I felt total renewed life in me. … That was the most joyful moment.”
But Guzman-McMillan turned out to be the very last survivor found in the rubble. Emergency workers soon realized the chance of finding more survivors was slim, and the dogs’ mission became one of recovery rather than rescue.
“We went there expecting to find hundreds of people trapped,” Chris Selfridge, who was at Ground Zero as the handler of a 4-year-old golden retriever named Riley, told the New York Times. “But we didn’t find anybody alive.”
With no chance of finding survivors, the dogs’ job was to locate cadavers from the rubble. Their handlers feared the dogs would become demoralized with no living humans to rescue, so they would stage “mock finds” to make them feel successful, according to the 9/11 Museum and Memorial.
But the dogs also took on a new responsibility as a comforting sight for a nation in mourning. Showing up on the extensive news coverage of Ground Zero, the dogs’ recovery efforts were seen as a light in the darkness.
And they especially had an impact on the emergency responders who worked alongside them. “The search and rescue dogs didn’t rescue any people from the pile,” Alan Fausel, executive director of American Kennel Club’s Museum of the Dog, told the Times. “But I think they somewhat rescued the people who were searching.”
Trained therapy dogs were also crucial in the aftermath of 9/11. While many dogs were brought in to help grieving families, a few were brought to Ground Zero to help soothe stressed-out workers.
“A firefighter called up V-Mat [Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams] after we left and said, ‘Where are those comfort dogs? They’re the only thing that helps me get through the day,” Cindy Ehlers, who traveled to New York with her therapy dog Tikva, told the American Kennel Club.
Bretagne, the last 9/11 dog
Because it has been 20 years since 9/11, all the dogs involved have since passed away.
Bretagne, a search-and-rescue golden retriever, is believed to have been the final survivor. In addition to searching the rubble at Ground Zero, she also helped look for survivors in other disasters like Hurricane Katrina before retiring at age 9.
She died in 2016, euthanized after suffering from kidney failure.
But as the last 9/11 dog, Bretagne got a special send-off. As she was taken on her final ride to the hospital in Texas, local police officers and firefighters showed up to give her a final salute.
“This was a very small way for us to pay tribute to a dog who truly has been a hero,” Cy-Fair Volunteer Fire Department Captain David Padovan told Today in 2016. “Just because she’s a K9 doesn’t make her any less part of our department than any other member.”
Bretagne was draped in an American flag after she passed away, and now has a bronze statue dedicated to her in Houston.
And Bretagne’s legacy lives on in another way: her former handler Denise Corliss recently took in a 1-year-old pup named Finn, who happens to be Bretagne’s sister. “They called me and asked me if I would be interested in having one of the puppies,” she told Today. “Anything that’s close to Bretagne is one I want. … I don’t even care if she becomes a working dog or not. I’m just so happy to have her.”
She says that Finn might be suitable for a job detecting human remains, following in the footsteps of her famous sister.
Remembered 20 years later
While there were few survivors for them to save, the 9/11 dogs are still remembered as inspiring heroes, and on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, people are looking back on their important legacy.
Two museum exhibitions dedicated to these dogs are currently running: “9/11 Remembered: Search & Rescue Dogs” at the Museum of the Dog, and “K-9 Courage” at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.
The displays help visitors remember the all the important work these dogs did in the dark days following the attacks.
“You look into their eyes in their old age and can, with the help of the documentary photographs, imagine what their eyes had seen,” Alice M. Greenwald, the chief executive and president of the 9/11 Museum and Memorial, told the New York Times.
“But you also know that they’ve lived lives of service and surely, there is satisfaction in that — for dogs and human beings, alike.”
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