The wind blows northeast, the sun peeking through the clouds, a harbinger of the rough days to come. Feet gather around the mechanical moving boxes, a strategic formation. There is one voice booming, giving instructions and detailing expectations. A gust of wind brings a multitude of scents: asphalt, lumber, concrete, mud, tears. Urgency radiates from the single voice—the feeling of sorrow and hope. Bruno sits there waiting for the voice to stop, looking beyond the houses, or what is left of them.
“We need to inspect the area, we need to find survivors. We are looking for about fifteen people reported missing in this area. The faster we case these places, the better chance we have at finding them,” the voice says. “It’s been five days since the storm ended so let’s hope for the best. Let’s do our job to get some of these slabs moving and find these people. Remember, stick to your designated search area, and use your radio to call for help if you find anyone. May God be with us all.”
A whistle resonates in Bruno’s ears, the signal that the work will begin. “Here boy, here Bruno. Are you ready? You know what to do. Ok, boy. Go find,” Mark, the handler, says. Bruno, a youthful golden retriever, knows his mission has begun, the mission to save lives. They approach an area of destroyed property, the corner of a street where a row of houses begins. He can smell the wet lumber, the sod, the steel. His handler releases him. “Go find, boy.” Bruno walks along a narrow path leading to the fallen house and works his way towards the debris. The house once stood tall, a shining brilliance of the people who lived there. Hard work went into making this home welcoming, only now it welcomes grief and destruction.
Bruno puts his snout in the air analyzing the scent data around him, unseen particles communicating a story about the environment. He barks, kicking his legs into a slight sprint. A scent—something wet, something familiar—flows through the air. He picks up his stride, Mark following behind moving counter-clockwise to give him space and to watch his body language. He reaches the remains of the house, the interior blends in with the exterior. Bruno leaps on the broken slabs of concrete where metal bars and lumber pierce through the rubble like plants reaching for sunlight. Compact spaces are enclosed by the weight and structure of these slabs, but Bruno puts his snout around them anyway, he knows no stone goes unturned.
Barks, whistles, and calls fill the air, Bruno’s ears perk up. He moves down the rubble to another spot, following the scent of familiarity, the scent of life. His body moves through the wasteland with grace and ease, moving from one scent to the next. Each scent tells him life is trapped somewhere in the ruins of these houses; they lay on the ground like Lego pieces scattered over a child’s room. Mother Nature playing with people’s lives like children play with their toys, without a care in the world, destructive.
“Over here,” a voice says, the intensity of the shout pervades throughout the area. “We have a live one. We need help over here!” About ten people from the search and rescue team converge on the voice and help recover the person. Bruno knows he can do the same, he will find someone, he will save a life. He searches his area, picking up the pace, a bark here and there. He runs back to Mark, to make sure he is doing good.
The hurricane came through the valley in a state of madness; it picked up strength as it came inland, and by the time it hit this area the wind speeds picked up to about 120 mph. Even with a mandatory evacuation in place, some people didn’t leave their homes. For some, this was the only place they had known, and for others, leaving was not an option.
This small Texas town, Bruno now finds himself in, was struck with devastation after the hurricane made landfall. Houses once stood together in rows, a sign of solidarity and a sign of society, but now they are exclamation marks left behind by the screaming winds and shouting rain, where one property begins and ends is difficult to determine. Everything a house is meant to protect and keep private thrown out for the world to see. The only hope for recovery is finding the people who stayed behind, who looked Mother Nature in the eye and said, “No, you will not take back your land.”
Bruno glances at the other people for a moment and puts his snout back into the air. He moves around a section of the fallen roof, broken walls, and destroyed hearts. His eyes focus on a spot in what would have probably been someone’s living room. An aroma wafts into the air, food scattered by. Bruno represses his instinct and ignores the alluding smell; he must finish his mission. The scent of sweat and skin fill his nostrils. Two deep barks expel from his throat, signaling his handler. He hears the footsteps coming closer. “What is it, boy? What did you find?” Mark asks. He finds Bruno pawing away at shingles covering fallen walls made of stucco. “Check it.” Bruno checks again, but something is different, the scent doesn’t end there. He follows it leading to what was once a bedroom—a toppled dresser, clothes scattered, and a bed is hidden beneath the fallen roof. Bruno scans the area and picks up the scent of life. He reaches a corner of the room, crushed by the ceiling. He barks, beckoning Mark to come to him.
There was no chance of survival for the couple found under the rubble. Their bodies huddle together, crushed by the chaos. The search and rescue team determined the bodies belonged to Estevan and Mary Martinez, their little girl, Lilly, was still missing. Bruno whimpers as Mark pats him on his head. “It’s ok, boy. You did good.” But Bruno doesn’t feel good, he was trained to find the living not the dead.
Bruno has been training to be a search and rescue dog for most of his life. He was given to Mark after the tragic events of Hurricane Katrina. Mark’s mother died during the storm. A search and rescue dog named Milly—a golden retriever—found him while he laid in the fetal position trapped under concrete, wood, and blood, surrounded by bacteria-infested water. The beautiful, sand-colored dog could never grasp the gratitude Mark felt. So he has spent his life trying to repay the debt by training Bruno, and Bruno has spent his youth helping Mark overcome his fear and pain. Saving people is what Bruno was born for, it’s his purpose.
Smells of wet dirt, insulation, and stone go through Bruno’s nostrils, triggering the need to move, the need to find. He makes his way down a small hill of fallen bricks, debris reminiscent of a battlefield. He enters the next fallen house, but a small pond of water formed in the area, due to flooding, blocks the path of the scent. Bruno takes a detour, moving around the body of water. He fits his body into a small crevice formed by the debris and navigates through the small tunnel and reaches the other side, another mound of fallen concrete and stucco lay before him. He takes a moment to catch his breath, relaxes his body. He picks his head up, takes a whiff, and moves toward the area he can smell life. He climbs over the mound and barks and waits for Mark, who is no longer in view. He barks again, the smell of youth enters his nostrils.
He must find the source, and knows for a fact it came through this house but knows it didn’t start there. When he discovered the two bodies, he smelt the same scent. It drew him to that corner, but amid the rescue team recovering the bodies, he let go of it. This is the same scent though, it has to be. He works his way through the remains of the house and comes to an area saturated with the scent. In the center of the room, the debris looks as though the middle of the house imploded on itself. The second floor came straight through the ceiling; whatever room was above it doesn’t matter now, both mashed together forming a monstrous lump of carnage.
He goes toward the massive debris; the scent exuding from it. He barks and barks. His calls are unheard by Mark. He barks again, but the scent is fading. His instincts take over his body. He whimpers and barks some more. There’s a faint grown coming through, buried under the rubble.
The pond of water caused Mark to backtrack around the home, he couldn’t go through the crevice and the easiest way through the debris is to go through the backyard. As he makes his way over fallen planks of wood and drywall, he pulls out the paper given to him by the search and rescue leader which designates the area he and Bruno are to search. The house they just went through belonged to the Martinez family. The destroyed property he navigates through belongs to their neighbor Carlos Gomez, who is missing, unclaimed. He hopes they can find him or at least bring closure to his family.
Mark climbs over some fallen debris to continue around the house—a gazebo along with a barbeque pit lay among the ruins. He walks through the backyard, a place holding remnants of good times and evening get-togethers. He hears Bruno’s call. He makes his way into the house and over more obstacles scattered in front of him. He hears the bark again, his feet move fast causing him to slip and fall down amongst the rubble. He lays there for a minute, regaining his composure. He uses some fallen pieces of wood to get himself back up, and as he picks his body up, he glances around at the floor and notices a picture frame. He picks it up and examines the family photo, a relic of the past. The photo belongs to the Martinez family, how it got there is a bit of a shock to Mark. He takes the photo out of the frame and puts it in his jacket pocket.
Mark climbs over the debris and goes through an entryway created by the remains of a roof. He sees Bruno hovering around an area of piled concrete, stucco, and lumber, forming a mound of destruction. “What is it, boy? Did you find something? Show me, boy. Check it.” Bruno barks again and runs up to Mark, yipping and jumping at the same time. Mark feels the wet snout, Bruno found something, but Mark needs to make sure. “Check it, boy. Check it.” Bruno senses the urgency, and of all the years he’s spent licking Mark’s wounds, he knows the feeling, the feeling of hopelessness. Bruno barks and barks, doing his best to help the situation. Mark uses his radio to call for help, but he doesn’t even get static, the radio broke when he fell. He exits the fallen house. “I have a live one over here,” Mark says, his voice thunderous.
Members of the search and rescue team don’t take long to arrive at the point of interest. Bruno barks, commanding them over to the mound of wreckage. As they approach, there is a faint hesitation by some members. “We need to be careful, any slab we remove might topple the rest of the house on top of us,” one member says. The pile of debris was holding up a section of the house as if it is a crutch, the house desperate to stay alive. “We need to start cribbing, leveraging, some of these pieces so we don’t add to the destruction. Call on the radio for John to bring the truck over. We can use the supplies to create support for these—” Bruno is no longer listening to the voice, he is hearing the cry for help; the cry coming from under the rubble.
Without hesitation Bruno looks for another solution. Bruno can sense time is running out, and waiting for these humans to make—whatever it is they’re making—support to help lift the wreckage is making him anxious. Mark tries to stop him, to console him, but his insistence is futile. Bruno’s need to save has become a priority and getting to the person buried has overtaken his need to listen to Mark. Bruno makes his way around the collapsed piles of roof and walls. He finds a crevice at the base of the mound and crawls through it. Mark tries to follow him, calling out to him, begging him. When you can sense desperation, you will do whatever it takes to ease it.
Bruno follows the tunnel, follows the scent. The cry for help is getting louder, the noise above is drowning it out though. He relies on his nose to do the searching. Traversing through the wreckage, he gets to the source. The smell is overwhelming; he feels a small hand on top of his paw. A little girl huddled in the fetal position, cries out to him. There’s another body next to her, covering her in a manner of protection, but Bruno doesn’t smell life. He reaches for her body, but there is no way of getting her out, the crevice is too narrow for him to fit both of them through. His attempt to save this child is fruitless. A whimper and a tender bark comfort the girl. She groans in pain and in relief. This admirable dog lying in front of her is the sign of hope she had been wanting, been needing.
Bruno’s ears shoot up, his body tenses. There’s a sudden shift in the surrounding area. Pieces of dirt and stucco fall on his body. The girl cries, begging him to help her. The movement above them has caused some debris to cave in. Bruno senses the danger. He crawls forward towards the girl and covers her. The weight of the house comes crashing on top of them.
The rescue team works to create some leverage for the fallen house around the area. Mark helps, anxiety pulsing through his veins. He hopes Bruno is ok, the thought of his companion’s death unbearable. Worried for both his dog and the person under the collapsed house, Mark works harder. The team creates some support with the wreckage to lift part of the fallen section back up, still awaiting the truck’s arrival.
An abrupt sound resonates throughout the area, the sound of wood snapping, the sound of the walls crashing. The rescue team moves out of the way. Dust and more debris cover the area. The cribbing they made kept most of the toppled area around them supported, but parts of the second floor fell over, adding to the mound.
Mark shouts and starts lifting what he can, the others join him. Hands reach for whatever piece of destruction they can carry, the chance of saving a life within their grasp. Grunts and groans fill the room, sweat spewing to the floor. The pieces they pull off are used to create more supports, statues formed for protection. The mound reduced to some pieces of tile, ceiling, and other debris. As they reach for the final fragments of the mound, they hear a bark.
Bruno is covering Lilly, the missing child. The medics rush in, being gentle, consciously aware of the trauma this girl has endured. Mark goes to Bruno and picks him up. He takes him to a veterinarian on standby, and the vet looks over Bruno, who is panting, whimpering, satisfied. Bruno suffered minor scrapes and bruises on his back from the fallen debris, overall a survivor.
Bruno glares at Mark and barks with a consistent pattern, a signal that he wants something. Bruno moves towards the triage area to check up on Lilly. Mark follows him, and when they reach the medical station they find the girl breathing, she will survive. Bruno made sure of that. Mark reaches into his jacket and pulls out the photo he found. “Give her this, I think she might need it,” Mark says to one of the medics. Bruno licks the girl’s hand, he did it, he found her.
Bruno picks up his nose, the scents around him flow through his nostrils, each telling a unique story. Lilly’s survival—one of those stories—forever etched in his mind. He followed her youthful, strained smell to her neighbor’s house. She escaped the roof that collapsed on her parents, devastation that will take years of recovery. Her scent flowed from that dreadful corner of her house to the spot she was found, huddled next to her neighbor. She had made her way through the fierce winds and rain to make it to another place of shelter. Her neighbor did his best to keep her safe, and if not for Bruno, Lilly would have suffered the same fate. Bruno knows her story doesn’t end here, and neither does his mission. With a bark he signals Mark, the scent of life lingers off in the distance.