Sarah Atlas is a search-and-rescue dog handler, one of many civilian volunteers who serve with New Jersey Task Force 1. On the day of the attacks on the World Trade Center, Sarah got the call at 8:46 that she and her German Shepherd, Anna, who was trained for live find and as a therapy dog were to report to the Lakehurst Naval Engineering Station. They were to be deployed to Ground Zero with 200 other members of New Jersey Task Force 1, including structural engineers and medical workers, as well as other search-and-rescue people. They headed up the New Jersey Turnpike that afternoon to the Jacob Javits Center in midtown Manhattan, where they set up in the parking garage of the convention center. Shortly after arrival, her group got the call that the dogs were needed. They were bused downtown to within 15 blocks of Ground Zero and walked the rest of the way.
As they got close to the surreal landscape of Ground Zero, Sarah and her colleagues heard the eerie sounds of thousands of rescue workers chanting, “The dogs are here, the dogs are here.” The streets, the buildings, the cars, everything was covered with ash. There were white plastic buckets hanging on the trees for people to deposit items that they found. Sarah picked up a postcard from the ground that had evidently come from one of the towers. In it a Cantor Fitzgerald workers wrote of coming home from vacation. She reports that Anna definitely picked up on the stress that her handler was feeling.
They worked for 10 days, sleeping at the Javits Center on cots and eating food brought in on trucks by the Salvation Army. Sarah reports that everyone was so kind: “The janitorial staff at the Javits Center even brought in bones for the dogs.”
Anna had to be put down 11 months later. Sarah now works with a dog named Buscar, which means “search” in Spanish. Sarah also started the Search and Rescue Dog Foundation, www.sardogfoundation.org, which raises money to help handlers purchase replacement dogs, which cost between $1,500 and $6,500. The training for these dogs carries a high cost as well, averaging $10,000. Since most civilian search-and-rescue people are volunteers, this puts a heavy burden on these citizens, who do this work out of the goodness of their hearts.
On September 11, 2011, Sarah will be attending a Recognition Ceremony to honor all working dogs and their handlers, veterinarians, and VMATs (veterinary medical assistance teams) who worked at the 9/11 sites. The ceremony will be held at Liberty State Park at 12:45 and will begin with with the National 9/11 Moment of Remembrance, led by New Jersey Senator Frank R. Lautenberg. The honorees will then walk in a processional march along Liberty Walk, right across the water from Ground Zero, overlooking Ellis Island. Current SAR teams will line the processional route honoring their colleagues. Following the Recognition Ceremony, which will include speeches and the presentation of awards, there will be demos by dog teams. Thousands of SAR teams are expected at this moving ceremony.
The event is produced by Finding One Another: Courage Beyond Measure,™an organization which seeks to honor all canine search-and-rescue teams, both at the anniversary of 9/11 and going forward. Finding One Another seeks to educate the public and raise funds to support the needs of the search-and-rescue field.