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Hundreds of dog handlers, veterinarians and their canine partners from across the country gathered Sunday at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey for a ceremony honoring rescue workers who rushed to Ground Zero and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Those people make this day a celebration of the American spirit,” said Paul J. Fishman, the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey and one of the speakers at the event.
Rescue dogs and their handlers came in handy in the hours and days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when emergency response was still a rescue mission and the hope of finding survivors ruled out any use of heavy equipment.
Nearly 300 dogs worked on rescue missions at the Sept. 11 sites, said Abigail Gary of Finding One Another, a rescue-worker support group that organized the event.
Joey, a 14-year-old Australian Shepherd, was one of them. His handler, Trish Cartino, said she was deployed as part of a Federal Emergency Management Agency response team on Sept. 11, 2001, to the Pentagon, where the dog located human remains and body parts in the debris.
Most of the dogs that worked at the Sept. 11 sites have since died of old age, Gary said.
Mitch Serlin, a retired K-9 and SWAT officer with the Westchester County police, said he was sent to Ground Zero soon after the attacks and began searching for survivors with Winnie, a trained Labrador that found the body of a New York City fireman in the rubble. Winnie died in 2008, Serlin said.
Karen Dashfield, a Sussex County veterinarian and dog handler, said she, too, was called to help rescue teams at Ground Zero. She and Sophie, her German Shepherd that died four years ago, spent several days at the site, where the dog helped find numerous human remains, she said.
Also present at the ceremony were several handlers of therapy dogs, which did not participate in rescue efforts but helped rescue workers in a different way, said Cindy Ehlers, a dog handler from Oregon.
Ehlers said her Keeshond, Tikva, now 12, provided comfort to rescue personnel who had been working at Ground Zero for several days. “First responders are very stoic,” she said. “They can’t get emotional.”
Spending time with Tikva, however, eased their stress, and first responders who weren’t even talking to one another in the beginning began chatting and joking, she said.