Maryland women depart with search dogs to Nairobi German shepherds trained to find survivors buried in building wreckage

August 09, 1998|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Two Maryland women and their search-trained German shepherds flew to Africa yesterday as part of a Federal Emergency Management Agency team effort to rescue people trapped in the wreckage of the bombed U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.

Elizabeth Kreitler, 51, of Annapolis and Sonja Heritage, 37, of Bowie took their dogs -- Garret and Otto -- on their mission of "air-scenting" to find people trapped -- but still breathing -- in rubble.

The women are part of a 62-member FEMA task force based in Fairfax, Va., which responds on short notice to disasters around the globe.

"She called and said, 'We're going to Africa,' " accountant Jay Kreitler said of his wife. He said he did not have a chance to say goodbye before she and their dog Garret joined task force members aboard a Pentagon cargo plane at Andrews Air Force Base for the 18-hour flight before dawn yesterday.

Heritage, a part-time bartender at an Annapolis restaurant, passed the FEMA test as a dog handler last year, said her companion, 53-year-old James Wiggins. He said that she and Otto, nearly 3 years old, train together 30 to 40 hours every week.

There are four German shepherds and four handlers on FEMA's African mission, said Julie Dyer, director-at-large of Search and Rescue Dogs of Maryland, based in La Plata in Charles County. (( The nonprofit group uses German shepherds to find people. Her husband, Garrett Dyer, is the paramedic heading the canine unit. "He went to Oklahoma City [for the 1995 bomb blast] and Atlanta for the Olympics [and the 1996 bombing], so I'm kind of used to this," Julie Dyer said.

The African mission is the first major assignment and overseas trip for the two Maryland women and their German shepherds. The Israeli and Swiss governments also sent "sniffer" dog teams.

Jay Kreitler described his wife as adventurous -- a master scuba diver, black belt in karate, an underwater photographer and an international sailor.

Both women train with the dogs year-round on a volunteer basis to keep their readiness high. They are paid when they are sent on a government mission.

Among the skills the women have mastered are rappelling and climbing, so that when their dogs climb the rubble of a destroyed building, they are not far behind. Elizabeth Kreitler can tell by Garret's bark whether a person he has found is alive or dead.

Their equipment includes fireproof uniforms and backpacks loaded with bottled water, compasses, radios and food.

Pub Date: 8/09/98

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