Dogs of 9/11: Search and rescue canines worked tirelessly in days following terror attacks

As America marks the anniversary of the worst terror attack on U.S. soil, many remembered the countless lives lost and selfless acts by the brave responders on September 11, 2001 — both human and four-legged.

Nearly 3,000 people were killed when terrorist-piloted planes slammed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

Thousands of firefighters and emergency medical personnel responded to Ground Zero, including more than 300 specialized canine search and rescue (SAR) teams in the days following. But according to the American Kennel Club, only about 100 were prepared for the size of the disaster.

One Twitter user noted in 2019 that on the anniversary of 9/11, he tries to “focus on individual stories from that day” to help connect with the immeasurable grief that was felt by so many. In a thread that went viral, he chose to focus on the dogs.

Bretagne was 2 when she and her handler, Denise Corliss, were part of the Texas Task Force 1 sent to the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan, according to Fox News. They spent 10 days at the scene searching rubble for human remains. She died in 2016 at age 16.

Another dog, Riley, was the subject of an iconic K-9 photo from the September 11th attacks. The Golden Retriever was formally trained to locate survivors of the attacks, searching Ground Zero through the nights following as part of FEMA’s Pennsylvania Task Force 1, according to the American Kennel Club. The picture of Riley captured the hearts of people around the world and moved many to action.

World Trade Center Attack

Riley, a rescue dog, is transported out of the debris of the World Trade Center September 15, 2001 days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. (U.S. Navy Photo by Jim Watson/Getty Images)

Appollo, a German Shepherd who worked with the first NYPD K-9 Urban Search and Rescue team, responded with his handler, Peter Davis. They were the first K-9 search and rescue team to respond to the site, arriving at the South Tower just 15 minutes after its collapse. Appollo looked for survivors for 18 hours a day for weeks, according to the American Kennel Club.

Trakr was a German Shepherd who responded with his Canadian police officer handler, James Symington. The team is credited with finding the last remaining survivor from the World Trade Center after she had been trapped for hours. Two days after arriving and searching for survivors, the dog collapsed from smoke inhalation, exhaustion and burns and was treated before returning to Canada, according to TIME. Trakr was awarded the sixth spot on TIME’s published list of Top 10 Heroic Animals.

A yellow lab named Sirius was the only known K-9 to die in the attacks. Sirius was in the basement below the World Trade Center’s South Tower with his handler, Port Authority Police Department Lt. David Lim, when they felt the building “violently tremble,” according to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Lim secured Sirius in his kennel and went to assist the injured, telling his partner, "I'll be back for you." Sirius' remains were later recovered in the winter of 2002 in the wreckage of the South Tower and ceremoniously removed from Ground Zero with a full honor guard.

Countless other dogs worked for days on end after the attack to help find remains.

Worf, a German Shepherd with a gentle soul, found the remains of two firefighters on his first day and had to be immediately retired. He stopped eating and was so affected that he shut down, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. His handler Mike Owens said, "He kind of withdrew from everything. There was so much death there, it was emotional for the dogs."

The smallest dog working search and rescue at Ground Zero was Ricky, a Rat Terrier who stood at just 17 inches tall. His size allowed him to squeeze into places that other dogs couldn’t, and he searched the ruins for 10 days straight on the night shift with his trainer, Janet Linker of the Seattle Fire Department. He found bodies of several victims, according to The Seattle Times.

Hansen, a Belgian Shepherd Dog, worked on site for 150 days alongside his handler, Steve Smaldon, then-chief of the Lindenhusrt Fire Department. Hansen found the body of NYPD Officer John William Perry, who had been hours away from retiring when the attacks occurred, but rushed into the chaos to help anyway.

The same day, Hansen also located the body of Sgt. Michael Curtin, a Marine Corps veteran who had been with the NYPD for 13 years. “(Sgt. Curtin’s) complete body was recovered,” Smaldon told author Ron Burns. “Even being able to read his name on his uniform. Curtin had been a Marine before becoming a police officer. He had helped dig out a Marine who was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. This was a proud day for me and Hansen to bring home two of our own.”

“Most people in this country had never heard of disaster search dogs [before 9/11],” Debra Tosch, Executive Director of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, told the AKC. She said that “public knowledge really exploded” after news media covered the dogs working at Ground Zero.

Moved by what they saw, many people began donating to programs that trained search and rescue dogs. Some first responders created their own training or research programs focused on SAR dogs, while general members of the public were inspired to pursue search-and-rescue certification for their own dogs.

The value of SAR dogs was forever solidified because of the way these four-legged heroes shone in the face of incredible tragedy.

"When people saw or touched the dogs, they would relax or have a moment's hope," said Dr. Cindy M. Otto, director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, who was a first responder deployed to Ground Zero to treat dogs returning from searches in the rubble. “It was incredible to see the power those dogs had."

Editor's note: This article was originally published on Sept. 11, 2019.

This story was reported from Cincinnati and Los Angeles. The Associated Press contributed.