Keenly, carefully, and bravely searching through the mangled, smoldering pile of concrete, steel and glass for survivors and victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, K9 officers and handlers played a crucial role in the massive rescue and recovery effort. Hundreds of these heroic first responders and their devoted canine partners scoured Ground Zero, working tirelessly at a job unlike any other before it.
Photos courtesy of LAFD
Now, more than 21 years later, the AKC Museum of the Dog in New York, New York, is making sure we forever remember these valiant men, women, and dogs in uniform. The museum hosted a special “K9 Officers and Handlers Tribute” on Thursday, September 29, 2022. The reception and evening event was a salute the hero dogs of 9/11 and police canine officers across the country.
Among those honored is Lieutenant John Pappas, the Canine Commanding Officer of the New York City Police Department. The attacks of September 11 have been a driving force in his career. He specializes in counter terrorism and leads a force that includes 54 dogs and handlers.
“The motto of my unit is to detect, deter, mitigate, and respond to a terrorist attack. In order to do that I have to prepare the human element of the canine team as well as the canine element. That means training them not just to detect explosives, but training them to think in the mind of the opponent,” he says. “My job is to try to prevent another 9/11.”
Canine courage and the healing power of the human animal bond
While their mission started as a search and rescue in treacherous terrain and under horrific conditions, the K9 teams of 9/11 soon found themselves moving from rescuing survivors to identifying and locating victims. Many were experienced at finding live people, but never formally trained as cadaver dogs. Yet, they pivoted, and the courage displayed on both ends of the leash had significant impact.
As the dogs found those who tragically lost their lives, it helped families begin to find closure. Deborah Kasindorf, Executive Director & CEO of the museum says, while putting together this tribute, talking and meeting with so many people, “I have a greater appreciation for what the dogs and handlers went through, and, years after the fact, we’re more educated about what working dogs do and how heroic these animals are.”
Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Border Collies, German Shepherds, search and rescue dogs, bomb detection dogs, cadaver dogs, their handlers and more took their turn on what became known as “the pile,” working 11 to 12-hour shifts for days and weeks at a time. Climbing across dirty, dangerous, shifting rubble, sniffing deeply in areas littered with toxic substances from the collapsed buildings, being transported on platforms then lowered into areas their human partners could not go, amid smoke and ash, are some of the working conditions these K9s faced. These two and four legged heroes also made a difference for their fellow first responders, providing comfort and alleviating stress, just by being there.
Now, the next generation of working K9s is continuing to provide emotional support in both direct and indirect ways. When Lieutenant Pappas started the canine unit, he began the NYPD tradition of naming canines after fallen heroes, both police officers and firefighters. He also helped the FDNY start its canine unit and they’re doing the same.
“This ensures that we keep their memory alive, and delivers a message to their families, that we have not forgotten the sacrifice made by their loved one,” he says. “I have named my Police Canine Palla, in honor of my friend Paul. When I go on patrol with her, there are three of us out there, Palla and I, as well as Paul.” Lieutenant Pappas says Paul spent considerable time in the rescue and recovery effort and, unfortunately, developed brain cancer and passed away.
Studies show 9/11 first responders have an elevated risk of several types of cancer. “May his memory and the memories of all of the fallen never be forgotten, and may we remember, not how they died, but rather how they lived.”
The AKC Museum of the Dog honors working K9s
Deborah was honored to welcome MTA, police and firefighters who were visiting the museum for the first time. And, thanks to generous AKC and museum board members, as well as other donors helping to off-set costs, there was no charge to the invited, uniformed first responders. These generous gifts also help the museum continue to conserve and present materials and stories about working dogs.
“The AKC (American Kennel Club) has had a long relationship with the United States Police Canine Association and the museum is an affiliate of the AKC,” Deborah says. “Shortly after 9/11, AKC leadership was instrumental in creating a memorial to New York and everyone affected by 9/11 with local artists who designed bronze and ceramic life-sized dogs.”
Those dogs were all over New York at the time. The museum has three in its collection. A couple were on site during the tribute, including the one called “Pride” that is red, white, and blue. Guests were able to take photos with Pride during the event.
Guests also had the chance to enjoy this unique museum, which offers visitors a special experience with a variety of exhibits and interactive attractions. One is a kiosk where people take a photo and then receive a side-by-side picture of the dog breed they look like most. “People love it,” Deborah says.
This event was an evening to remember. “It’s a tribute to express our appreciation and celebrate these heroes. It was also an opportunity for guests to experience one of the most premier collections of dog art in the country. ” Deborah says.
“What the tribute means to me,” Lieutenant Pappas says, “ is it is an opportunity to reflect on how much progress we’ve made. We came from a place of pain, a place of death to a place of healing. A place of negative energy to a place of love. A place of unpreparedness to a place of super preparedness. And I’m not saying that we’re infallible…but we are infinitely better prepared today to deal with a complex, coordinated terrorist attack then we were on September 10th, 2001.”
To make donations visit https://museumofthedog.org/get-involved/save-the-date
To learn more about this museum dedicated to celebrating the human canine bond visit: https://museumofthedog.org/
By Marlene Casillas