The car window is open just a crack. Through it, I can smell the fumes and hear the rumble of the city. I would like to stick my nose out of that crack, but Shannon will say No. I was doing that until she told me to Sit on the seat and Stay. What would be best is if she opened the window all the way: then I could stick my whole head out and still Sit.
Something is wrong today. Shannon is driving very quickly, so that everything outside the window whizzes past before I can see it clearly. She is afraid, and her fear makes me anxious. A phone call made her upset, and then she packed our working gear into the car. When we got in too, I thought a ride would make her happy again. It did not. She still looks like me at the vet.
Now a different smell comes through the open window crack: smoke.
Shannon puts the window up and stops the car near a milling throng of people. When she tells me to jump out, noise immediately crowds my ears. People are talking, shouting, and crying while sirens wail.
She straps my vest onto my back, then puts my booties on my feet, but I lie down and chew on one, trying to pull it off. I can’t grip anything with my toenails when I wear them. She sighs and takes them off again.
“Heel, Roman,” Shannon says, making my leash taut. We pass people wearing helmets and heavy clothing spraying writhing water hoses at plumes of flame. When we pass a box-shaped car with lights inside and out, I smell blood. I whimper.
She strokes my head. “People need us. We’ll be okay.”
Shannon stops me near some other dogs and talks with their handlers, her curly black hair thrusting out from beneath her helmet. Several of the dogs look despondent, their heads hanging low, staring at the ground.
I snort, trying to clear my nose of the terrible, acrid smell the wind has suddenly filled it with. Looking beyond the tired dogs and people, I see an enormous rubble field. Under the looming skeleton of a collapsed building, more people and dogs pick their way across the broken concrete and twisted metal, veiled by smoke seeping up from below and ash floating down from above. Even the bright blue sky is tinged with gray.
This is what is wrong. This is why we are needed.
Finally, Shannon kneels, unbuckles my vest, and takes off my collar. If I wore anything while working, it might get snagged on debris, and I could get stuck.
She walks with me onto the pile and gives me the signal to Search.
The footing is treacherous, and I concentrate almost as hard on my balance as on my Searching. Heat radiates up from the shifting ground. Hot, sharp things—metal, glass, concrete—stab the pads of my paws. Ash and smoke make my eyes water, and I sneeze and snort to clear my nose and mouth. Shannon wears something over her entire face to help her breathe, but if I wore anything like it, I would be unable to smell. Smell is how I find people.
I halt, nose to the rubble.
A person is here. But they are dead.
I am supposed to find people who are alive.
I whine, and Shannon tells me to keep Searching.
When I stagger from the pile hours later, my nose is clogged, my short black coat is gray with ash, and I am exhausted. I have not found one person who is buried alive. I am not doing my job. I have failed.
As soon as we reach solid ground, I sit down to rest, panting, head hanging low. Shannon waits for me. The smells of death and grief are overwhelming.
A group of men pause as they pass us, smelling of smoke. They are dressed like the ones I saw spraying the hoses earlier.
Abruptly, one of them kneels, pulls off his thick gloves, and begins stroking me.
“Oh man, a rottie! I love Rottweilers. You’ve been working hard, haven’t you? You thirsty?”
He pulls a plastic water bottle out of his pocket and passes it to one of his companions, saying, “Here, Joe, pour this into my hands and I’ll give this guy a drink.”
Joe unscrews the cap. “Rinse them off first so he doesn’t have to drink dirt; I’ve got another bottle if we need it.”
I gratefully lap the lukewarm water from the man’s hands. Shannon has water for me to drink, but I have not wanted it. The consideration of these strangers arouses me.
When I have emptied the cup of his hands several times, he shakes them off and fingers the tag on my collar. “Roman. You’re a good boy, Roman.” He rubs my head again, and his damp hand comes away caked with ashes. “Does anyone have any more water? Roman’s really dirty.”
Several men hold out more of the crinkling bottles.
“I’ve got one, Mike!”
In a moment, they are all trickling water over my back and head, while Mike rubs me all over. Soon I am sitting in a small puddle, but I am happy.
I stand and shake, showering water in every direction. Shannon and the men laugh, and I wag my tail and laugh with them.
“You’ve got a great dog,” Mike says, grinning at Shannon. “My name’s Mike, by the way.” He extends a pale, damp hand.
“Shannon,” she says, taking it. “He really is amazing.” Her eyes shine out of her dark face, and her white teeth seem to glow. “Roman was really sad until you guys came by. You really cheered him up. Me, too, actually.”
I will never forget this day. These men are just as tired as me, Shannon, and everyone else here, but their smiles give me hope.
If they can continue, so can everyone.
baptism of fire (translation of Greek baptisma pyros)
1. the first time that new troops are under fire or in combat
2. any experience that tests one's courage, strength, etc. for the first time
Thank you to all of the many people who served others in any way on September 11, 2001, from the civilians who crashed Flight 93 before it could cause more destruction than had already happened, to the service personnel who lost their lives saving others.
A special thank you to the many search and rescue handlers and their dogs, who traveled from around the world to offer their help, and to the vets who cared for those animals at Ground Zero.
We will never forget 9/11