Every year on Sept. 11, most of us take at least a moment to reflect on where we were that terrible morning, to remember the victims of the largest mass murder on American soil and to honor the fearless men and women who risked their lives to help their fellow citizens.
I wanted to do something here to remember that day, but with a pet-related column, my choices were limited. Then I saw an interview with rescue dog trainer Heather Roche and her dog, Red.
Red, a black Lab, spent weeks after Sept. 11 searching the rubble of the Pentagon for bodies of victims and signs of survivors. She has become something of a poster dog for Sept. 11 rescue dogs this week because she is one of the few still alive.
Red is now 12 years old, living in Annapolis, MD, and retired from her job as a search-and-rescue dog, a job that she almost never got to do.
Roche recently told Reuters, "I never thought she would be a successful search dog, and actually at 6 months old, I had found a pet home for her, had found another dog, because I thought, 'She's never going to—her personality is not what is needed for a working dog.' And then, no matter what I asked her to do, whether it was climbing up things, going somewhere while I stayed far away, ladders, you name it, she did it every single time, and she did it perfectly.”
In the days after Sept. 11, Red was only 18 months old and had never been on a real rescue mission. When Roche arrived at the Pentagon, she asked whether she could try her out, and the dog went right to work beside the older, more experienced animals.
The team worked in 12-hour shifts, discovering dozens of bodies. Roche says that after the shift was over, Red and the other rescue dogs were exhausted and would “sleep like rocks,” but by the next morning, they were always anxious to get back to work.
When the World Trade Center fell, rescue dogs and their handlers came from all over the United States to help search for missing people. Unfortunately, only a handful of the more than 100 personally owned dogs brought in by FEMA during those weeks are still alive. Those dogs are being remembered by photographer Charlotte Dumas.
Dumas traveled the country last year to meet the dogs and their owners. She photographed each of the 15 remaining dogs, three of which have since died, and learned their stories. Dumas has put the photos and stories together in a book called Retrieved, which is set to be released this fall.
“It was moving, talking to Denise Corliss, the handler and owner of Bretagne, one of the golden retrievers. She told me a touching story of one fireman who was there in the rubble and how taken he was with Bretagne, who comforted him as he sat down to catch his breath. Years later at a remembrance ceremony, the same fireman recognized Bretagne and her handler, and they had a touching reunion. It developed that even though the dogs couldn't find people still alive, they could provide comfort for the brave firemen and rescue workers of the emergency services,” Dumas said in a recent interview.
Another one of the dogs featured in Retrieved is Moxie, a 13-year-old chocolate Lab who lives in Winthrop, MA, with her handler, firefighter Mark Aliberti. Moxie, who will appear on the cover of Retrieved, worked for eight days and found six bodies at the World Trade Center, but in an interview with WCVB in Boston, Aliberti said Moxie played a larger role in the aftermath.
“There was a sense of healing there, playing with the dog and all that other stuff, and she liked it because she was really a friendly dog,” Aliberti said.
I encourage anyone who is interested to read more about the canine heroes of Sept. 11 or to check out one of the many photo essays, such as this one that features Dumas' work or this one from Sept. 15, 2001.
Many firefighters, police officers and other rescue workers have commented over the past decade on how much it meant to them to have the dogs around in those days. Not only were they helpful in recovering human remains and providing some closure to many victims’ loved ones, but they gave our brave heroes a sense of hope when there were not many signs of that around.
May we never forget the victims of Sept. 11, and may we always honor the brave men, women and animals who, not just on that day but on every single day of our lives, keep us safe and put others' lives ahead of their own.
If you’re interested in adopting a dog, please visit the at 1755 County Services Rd. (off Cedar Mountain Road).
Note: Videos of Red and Heather Roche, as well as Moxie and Mark Aliberti, can be viewed in the photo/video gallery above.