On Thursday morning, Sept 13th, 2001, after two days of watching the devastation at ground zero on TV, feeling helpless and restless, I decided I had to do something, anything to help. I told Adele that I needed to get into the city to see what I could do. The look of concern on her face was evident, but she also knew it would be pointless to try and talk me out of it, so after stopping by work to fill a backpack with IV fluids and other essential medical supplies, I hopped on the LIRR to Penn Station.
The subways were still not running, so I had to hoof it down 8th Ave. The further south I went, the more the streets resembled an occupied war zone. On every corner were police and National Guardsmen with automatic weapons and full combat dress. They were checking everyone traveling south. In addition to my drivers license, I was carrying my veterinary license, AVMA membership card, and some PBA cards. I also wore my stethoscope around my neck to help identify myself as a medical professional. There were stories circulating about veterinarians who had organized and set up medical stations to aid the canine rescue workers and my goal was to find one of these outposts and provide whatever help I could. The information was sketchy and contradictory, so I figured it was best to just keep heading south & west. On 11th Ave, somewhere around 14th St, I came upon a group of people who seemed to be somewhat loosely organized around an SPCA RV. I asked what was going on and someone told me they were waiting for the someone “in charge” to arrive. No one seemed to know exactly what to do. Meanwhile, authorities (whoever THEY were) were starting to allow people who lived near ground zero to go retrieve their pets who had been, for whatever reason, been left behind.
As I looked south, I could see people straggling back up 11th ave with dogs and cats in carriers. I’ll never forget the looks on the faces, the bewilderment, the concern for their pets. I decided this was as good a place as any to set up shop. I asked if there was a table I could set up on, and one appeared (there was a lot of this kind of thing around that time. Stuff would just appear, seemingly out of nowhere whenever something was needed). I emptied my knapsack on the table, hung some bags of fluid on a nail in the wall on the building and started motioning people with pets to come to me. At first, they looked confused, but then I would tell them “I’m a veterinarian, let me take a look at your pet.” People started lining up and I proceeded to examine animals, administering subcutaneous fluids. I remember feeling how little I could really do medically, but I also recognized how important it was to project calm and reassurance that their pets would be OK. I have rarely felt such raw gratitude for doing so little, for just being there. After attending to their pet, I directed people to an armory in the area which I heard was being used as a shelter. I operated my little “clinic” for maybe an hour before some middle management-types from SPCA and the Humane Society arrived, along with a media camera crew. My supplies were running low, so I though this would be a good time to move along. I packed up my stuff and walked a block or two east. After a few minutes observing a couple of National Guardsmen at a checkpoint, I was able to slip by them and continue my trek south.
The MASH unit was staffed with veterinarians and technicians who had set up a triage station to assist the search & rescue dogs coming off the pile. There were dogs and handlers from all over the country, some who had been put up in hotels, but many who slept in their cars. There were many different breeds of dog, from mutts to Rottis to German Shepherds. They were susceptible to paw injuries (abrasions, burns, lacerations), respiratory irritation from breathing the toxic fumes, as well as sniffing through the contaminated dust that was everywhere. They also suffered significant eye irritation. The veterinary staff was split up into teams that worked with the dogs and their handlers as they came out of “the pile,” often after 12 hour shifts. Each dog was examined, had it’s eyes flushed and paws bandaged or given booties. They were also administered subcutaneous fluids, or even IV fluids if deemed necessary. All dogs were treated prophylactically with antibiotics.
In talking with the handlers, a common theme was how frustrated the dogs were becoming. They were trained in search & rescue, but they weren’t finding anyone alive. Many of the handlers had a haunted look on their face. There were stories of body parts. It was all so surreal. I got to work immediately. There was no authority on site, (FEMA had yet to arrive) just a loose organization, but everyone seemed to know what to do.
I spent the rest of the day working the unit, finally heading home around 11pm. I returned the following Sunday with Christina, one of the veterinary assistants from my hospital. By this time the federal authorities had arrived and taken over the operation. There were more veterinarians than support staff! It was a completely different vibe. At one point, I noticed a colleague of mine from veterinary school standing across the street. She was a board-certified opthalmologist.
I went over and asked her why she hadn’t joined us (after all, one of the primary concerns for these dogs was their eyes!). She said that one of the guys in charge had told her to keep back! Can you imagine, a board-certified specialist sidelined because some pencil-pusher didn’t have the common sense to recognize the value! (I’m from the government, and I’m here to help!)
I remember one moment that will stay with me forever. There was a squad of Connecticut State Troopers, a K-9 unit that was coming up from the pile. As they approached our MASH unit, their squad leader had them fall into formation. They marched in formation to the MASH encampment and, in full military manner presented themselves and their dogs to us. The squad “presented arms” and saluted us. “On behalf of the Connecticut State Troopers, we would like to express our gratitude.” The squad then performed a crisp right angle pivot and proceeded to continue their march northward.