Porkchop Is Among Hero Dogs
Combing Trade Center Rubble
By JARED SANDBERG
At a medical station bathed in floodlights, four doctors prepared one of the emergency workers for the long day ahead. They taped his legs and fitted him with new boots. They offered him food and checked his eyes, because acrid smoke and dust would be clouding and burning them in the coming hours.
But mostly, they kissed his snout, rubbed his belly and said things like, "What a good boy, Porkchop!"
For a week, Porkchop, a one-year-old Australian shepherd with a blond coat and henna highlights, has been combing the steel knots of debris that were once part of the World Trade Center. In his time off, he cracks acorns, eats ants and watches the Animal Planet cable channel.
In the past few days, he has been searching for signs of life and death among the ruins. He hasn't found survivors. But Porkchop has discovered so many human remains that his handler, Erick Robertson of Oakhurst, Calif., says he has lost count.
In what is believed to be the largest canine deployment ever, an estimated 350 specialty dogs are at the World Trade Center. Even cat people admire them. With names like Dutch, Tuff, Bigfoot, Sally, Max and Cowboy, they work 12-hour shifts tunneling through voids and teetering on unstable rubble to pick up the slightest whiff of life or death. "If people are going to be found alive, the dogs are the ones to find them," says Barry Kellogg, who runs the Veterinary Medical Assistance Team, a part of the U.S. Public Health Service that treats animals in disasters.
Now that the effort is more recovery than rescue, the cadaver dogs, from as far away as Europe, play a critical role in giving answers to the thousands of families of the missing. Families visiting the site seem to know that and produce pictures with hopes that handlers have seen the victims. To date, Porkchop has identified remains along with wallets and purses that have led to the identification of four people.
"Our primary mission is to get people out," says Michael Kidd, a 36-year-old member of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, whose German shepherd, Mizu, has gone on missions as far away as Turkey. "But what's important here is a sense of closure for the families."
Cadaver dogs often get years of training with their handlers, who are typically members of fire departments or are emergency medical technicians. They must be unflustered in the face of screaming people and earth-moving equipment and physically capable of moving through confined spaces and even climbing ladders. Though many police department K-9 units have visited the site, the local urban search-and-rescue teams tend to have the most rigorously trained dogs, some of which meet standards of performance set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
They must learn new tricks that oppose their instincts. When a dog runs, it digs its claws into the ground. When the surface moves, a dog tends to jump off. But cadaver dogs learn to keep their feet spread without disturbing anything in their path. That's why many don't use the flood of dog booties donated to the site.
They learn to crouch, lowering their center of gravity, when rubble shifts beneath them, says Shirley Hammond, a 67-year-old canine search specialist from Palo Alto, Calif. Her deep-chested Doberman pinscher, Metrodobe Spicey's Sunny Boy, a k a Sunny, nudges her gesturing hand with his snout in search of stroking.
How do you teach a dog to find human remains? There are macabre products, such as "Pseudo Corpse," which mimic the smell of decomposed flesh. Other handlers use bodies and placentas donated to science. With a sense of smell thousands of times more sensitive than a human being's, dogs can pick up scents through concrete.
At the World Trade Center, the dogs work in teams in different sectors of the rubble. Structural engineers investigate areas to determine whether they can safely be explored. Hazardous-materials specialists, known as "hazmat," look for pockets of jet fuel, diesel fuel, Freon and toner -- to name a few. Then come the hounds. When they find remains, some will bark. Others are trained to lie down. Rescue specialists move in to seek out what the dogs have located.
To counter the cut pads, exposure to chemicals and dehydration, the public health service has deployed the Veterinary Assistance Medical Team, or VMAT. Working 12-hour shifts, those men and women and volunteer veterinarians staff a medical station in the middle of West Street, near Chambers Street, a few blocks north of the Trade Center ruins.
A 50-foot tent has a table of syringes, stations for ear cleaning and eye cleaning, cabinets of gauze and bandages, bags of intravenous solutions hanging from posts, Musher's Secret paw protection and enough toys, bones and biscuits to stock a pet shop. A sign hanging inside reads, "Emergency Horns. 1 Horn=Silence. 3 Blasts=Evacuate."
Last Saturday night was quiet. As vets changed shifts at 11 p.m., no dog showed up for hours. Then Cara, a two-year-old Beauceron herding dog, arrived. She had just tunneled through a 40-foot space with a camera strapped to her. Her handler wanted her nails filed and salve for her eyes. Vets checked her and found her to be slightly dehydrated and recommended that she get fluids when she got off her shift. She returned to "the pile" in a small vehicle 10 minutes later.
For the next three hours, only volunteers pushing shopping carts strolled by, offering up food, flags and Dr. Scholl's shoe inserts. Every few minutes, huge twisted beams glided by on flatbed trucks. A few minutes after 2 a.m., an ambulance with a massive police escort including motorcycles headed north with the remains of a police officer. Two more elaborate escorts made the same trip, one at 3:25 a.m. and another three hours and 10 minutes later.
At 5:01, the next patient rolled in -- a German shepherd working as a patrol dog for the New York City Police Department. Dwyer, his ears pointing behind him, was suffering from diarrhea and was still skittish from being nipped on the rump by another dog. Mitch Biederman, a volunteer vet, said Dwyer suffered from stress colitis. Another vet gave him a physical and dispensed an antibiotic.
At 6 a.m., a shift change took place, and with the Con Edison and Verizon telephone workers streaming northward, the dogs arrived. First was Kinsey, a black Labrador retriever who wagged her body more than her tail. The vet took her temperature and cleaned her up. She grabbed a braided chew toy as her handler noted that there is the scent of decaying flesh "everywhere. It's overwhelming."
Cholo, a German Shepherd, came in next. Like most of the specialty dogs, he is part of an urban search-and-rescue crew, this one from Texas. But he searches for survivors, not cadavers. And he didn't find anybody on his shift, said Bert Withers, the search manager. To avoid depressing the dogs after a disappointing day, some handlers will hide and let their dogs find them. The only thing upsetting Cholo now was the shower he was about to get -- from a hose and bucket hooked up to a makeshift tripod. From the look in his eyes, a bath was a betrayal.
Last on the scene was Thunder, a six-year-old golden retriever who is part of the Puget Sound, Wash., Urban Search and Rescue. Thunder, too, got a medical exam. He has been tunneling in through the rubble. "He's stressed out that he can't be on the pile more," says his handler, Kent Olson.
After a bath rid him of the dust and grease on his head, Thunder headed for the rest area uptown, while Porkchop, in his orange booties, headed for the pile. The fur on their hocks swayed behind them as they trotted away. A vet shook her head and said, "Such good dogs."