Police dogs help sniff out victims trapped in rubble

Canines also face danger working 6-hour shifts among the wreckage

Terrorism Strikes America

New York City

September 14, 2001|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -- As rescue workers frantically churn through the rubble looking for survivors, the fate of those clinging to life may hinge on a few high-tech tools and the noses of dogs like Raven.

Raven and his partner, John Zavalick of the East Hartford Police Department in Hartford, Conn., are one of dozens of police dog units from all over the Eastern United States that work alongside rescue workers to find survivors.

Yesterday they were sniffing through the vast pile of wreckage in teams of 10, working six-hour shifts.

The dogs are trained to lock onto sweat and other musky odors exuded by the body during stress.

"They way you and I smell ammonia, that's what sweat smells like to him," said Zavalick, 38, as he ruffled the hair of Raven's head.

Many dogs, he said, are trained to distinguish between a living person and a corpse.

Once the dogs pick up a human scent -- which they communicate to their partners by barking or clawing at the rubble -- then other rescuers swoop in with microphones and tiny cameras attached to fiber-optic lines, which can be snaked through the twisted wreckage to listen for signs of life.

So far, most of the news has been bad. Raven found four people Thursday, all dead.

"One guy still had his briefcase in his hand," Zavalick said.

Like many of the dogs here, Raven was trained to hunt down bad guys, not search for accident victims. So when Zavalick led his partner onto the World Trade Center rubble, he said, "Where's the bad guy? Where's the bad guy?"

When a dog finds something, he's rewarded with a treat.

Joe Brewer of the Southwick Police Department in Southwick, Mass., rewards his German shepherd, Tom, with a chewed-up Wilson tennis ball.

"It's a game to him. It's not real," said Brewer, 24.

But the game can be dangerous, too. The rubble shifts and groans as rescue workers pick their way through it.

"Everything that can cut a body open -- and he's got to go over it," said Zavalick.

One dog fell 40 feet when the rubble opened up beneath his paws, he said.

As the dogs sniff around, rescue workers pick off debris one piece at a time, moving them gingerly as though "brushing away fine hairs," as one put it. They don't want to accidentally collapse debris onto victims that might be trapped in -- or further maul the bodies of those who died there.

So valuable are the animals that rescuers have set up a canine medical unit to treat injured dogs.

"We're gearing up to handle 100 visits a day," said Gerald Lauber, chief of the Suffolk County, New York, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which runs the mobile veterinary service. There are only three such services in the country, he said.

When animals come in, volunteers such as Lisa Carter, 32, a veterinarian at the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan, scrub their paws in a small tub made from 5-gallon spring water bottles and rinse the soot from their eyes with saline.

Behind her is a table stocked with supplies: gauze wraps, saline wash, antibiotics, syringes -- and a super-size box of Milk Bone dog biscuits.

So far, said Carter, most injuries are cuts on their paws from the jagged glass and steel that the dogs have to climb over (some dogs trot around in fleece booties to protect the fleshy paws).

But if it's something serious, vets have the authority to flag down an ambulance and have the dog whisked to the hospital.

"They're considered police officers," Carter said.

Between shifts, when they aren't working, many dogs rest in air-conditioned mobile kennels that can hold as many as six animals.

Another problem is stress. Bravo, a 4-year-old German shepherd, squirmed as Carter slid an IV needle into his hind flank. The diagnosis: diarrhea, a sign that the dog was worked up.

"It's OK, you're almost done," New York City police Officer Joe Caputo whispered in his partner's twitching ear.

Caputo said the dogs, like people, aren't used to the long hours or large number of grizzly human remains.

"You can train all you want," Caputo said. "But this is the mother lode. The dogs can feel it."

No one at the wreckage scene is willing to put a limit on how long it might be possible for a human to live under the concrete and steel, least of all members of the New York police and fire rescue squads, who are collectively missing more than 300 of their brethren.

But nearly 72 hours after the twin towers of the World Trade Center rumbled to the ground, some have begun to wonder when the dogs' mission will change from rescue to recovery.

"You want to keep hope alive until you remove the last rock," said James Hall, a police officer with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who is helping the rescue efforts.

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