A tribute to the unsung canine heroes of 9/11.
NY POST She was a 3-year-old golden-haired beauty when she got the call to respond to her first disaster. Now, stiffer, slower and a bit gray, 13-year-old Bretagne is one of just a handful of World Trade Center rescue dogs still alive.
“We arrived on 9/12 and started working right away,” said Bretagne’s handler, Denise Corliss, a search-and-rescue volunteer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Bretagne had spent more than a year learning how to find survivors in concrete rubble, but her Cypress, Texas, training site was nothing like Ground Zero.
She clambered up ladders to get on top of the huge debris piles, padded across broken glass and twisted steel beams, wiggled into small spaces and crawled into dark holes, all the while sniffing through mounds of pulverized concrete searching for clues that would lead her to survivors. Like all the rescue dogs, she worked without a leash or a collar.
The dogs also didn’t wear protective booties, despite the crushed glass everywhere — they needed their claws for traction. Every night, she was given a decontamination bath. Her eyes, ears and mouth were rinsed out, and her abraded paw pads gently cleaned.
“It was her first mission, but she worked it like a pro. She didn’t get cut up or fall or get hurt,” said Corliss. But Bretagne had a couple of near misses. One day, sniffing along an elevated steel beam, she lost her footing.
“It was real wet because the fires were still smoldering and the water spray was everywhere,” Corliss recalled. “She just kind of slipped, but she used her paws to pull herself back up and kept on going. That was the only time I was a little unsettled.”
Bretagne was also a magnet for distraught firefighters searching the site for fallen comrades.
“A lot of times, firefighters would come by and pet her, talk to her and tell her stories,” said Corliss. One firefighter bonded so closely with Bretagne that he recognized her years later at a 9/11 memorial.
The gregarious golden retriever has seen several national disasters since 9/11 — she responded to hurricanes Katrina and Rita, going into flooded areas to find those unable to evacuate. She’s retired now, but has a hard time accepting it, said Corliss.
When Corliss heads out with her new search dog, Aid’n, Bretagne always wants to go along. “I bring her to the training site sometimes and let her run a few drills — she’s still got it,” said the proud handler.
Like Bretagne, the majority of 100 or so FEMA dogs sent to Ground Zero stayed only about 10 days.
Thirty-three NYPD K-9 dogs took over recovery operations — sniffing the rubble for remains — for eight months. All of those dogs have since died. The last one, Charlie, a longtime K-9 unit member, passed in January, just a few months shy of his 13th birthday.
All told, about 300 dogs contributed to the rescue and long-term recovery effort at Ground Zero, said Roy Gross, a Suffolk County SPCA agent who ran the mobile hospital that cared for the animals.
“Besides the FEMA and NYPD dogs, you had therapy dogs, brought in to help the rescue searchers, and dozens of volunteers who showed up at the site with their dogs, too,” said Gross.
A decade later, the vast majority of all the 9/11 dogs are gone, according to the book “Dog Heroes of 9/11,” which tracks the canines who worked at Ground Zero and the Pentagon. Only about 14 of the original FEMA dogs are still alive — including Kaiser, 12, a German shepherd from Indianapolis, and Tuff, 12, from Ashland, Mo.
Kaiser was bused to Ground Zero with his handler, Tony Zintsmaster, and arrived late at night on 9/11. He was immediately assigned to the 12-hour night shift.
As he climbed down from the pile on the morning of his second day, he badly sliced his right front carpal pad, probably on a sharp piece of steel, said Zintsmaster.
“There was no vet there yet, this was early on the 13th, so we found a medical-team doctor who stitched him up. Later, some vets arrived, and we got him bandaged and wrapped, and he was back to work that night.”
The smoky, smoldering pile was especially difficult to navigate after dark, but Kaiser relished the challenge. In the daytime, the dog would de-stress with a visit to the free massage and acupuncture table set up for first responders by the School of Oriental Medicine. Kaiser particularly liked getting acupuncture, said Zintsmaster.
Off the pile, his ebullient personality was a soothing balm to grieving responders. Early one morning, a firefighter walked up to Kaiser, knelt down and hugged him for a long time, in silence. Then he stood up and walked away, said Zintsmaster. Another time, a group of four firefighters decided the hot and thirsty German shepherd needed a drink.
“So one firefighter cups his hands together and two others are trying to pour water into his hands so Kaiser can lap it up, and meanwhile, the other one’s saying that Kaiser’s dirty, so that firefighter starts cleaning and rubbing his back and his muzzle. Kaiser’s real social, so he loved the attention and it was OK — it was what [the firefighters] needed,” said Zintsmaster.
Kaiser, a “live-find” dog, never gave the alert to indicate he had located a survivor during his 10 days at Ground Zero. But several times, he expressed interest in a scent he’d picked up.
“His training was good. He didn’t alert, which meant whatever he smelled wasn’t alive, but he reacted enough so that I’d know to bring over a cadaver dog,” his trainer said. “It’s always hard when you don’t find survivors.”
The hardworking German shepherd, who will be 13 in October, just retired last year. He’s in good shape, but no longer has the endurance for fieldwork, Zintsmaster said.
Some of the 9/11 rescue dogs have been incredibly long-lived. Tara, from Ipswich, Mass., got to Ground Zero the night of the disaster and stayed eight days. She was one of the oldest survivors, until she died last year at age 16.