Sarah Atlas – Search and Rescue at Ground Zero

Sarah Atlas and Anna |

When Sarah Atlas and harness racing parted ways a few years ago, she looked around, took stock of her life and went back to another thing she loved. Sarah still owns a Standardbred mare and has worked in many facets of the industry, including stints with the Standardbred Retirement Foundation and Times: in harness. But she also had attended nursing school and has had a long involvement with canine search and rescue teams work.

Now living in Barrington, N.J., Sarah enrolled in paramedic training, signed up as volunteer ambulance crew and was sitting in the local firehouse with her Emergency Medical Technician team on the morning of September 11, 2001, watching television.

“We were watching reruns of ‘I Love Lucy’ or something,” she says. “A fireman yelled over to put on the news. I did and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. My pager went off. I looked down and it read, ‘deployed.'”

Just like that, Sarah and her dog, Anna, were on their way to Ground Zero.

“Anna” is a working dog, a combination German and Czechoslovakian shepherd certified as a search and rescue canine in urban areas, wilderness and water.

Sent to Lakehurst (NJ) Naval Base, the entire crew–142 people and 12 dogs–were assembled and loaded onto buses. “We had our vital signs checked and made sure all our gear was ready. One of the other important things we do is to scan our ID cards,” says Sarah. “We must be able to account for everyone at all times.”

With a police escort accompanying them down the New Jersey Turnpike, the crew soon had an inkling of what awaited. “As we got closer, we could see fighter jets over New York. That made us get quiet,” says Sarah.

As they approached the city, the buses were stopped at the Holland Tunnel so the bomb-sniffing dogs could do their work. “We had a moment of silence then.”

Assembled at Ground Zero, the dogs were immediately sent on a “blitz search.” Sarah and Anna went to work, side by side with firemen, policemen and civilians, joined in a desperate and mostly futile task. “The firemen and people at the scene were so hopeful when the dogs arrived. The feeling of having to find someone alive was so strong in all of us,” says Sarah.

“Anna is a ‘live-find’ dog and she and the other dogs are trained to behave in a certain way when they find someone. Some of the dogs had been at Oklahoma City and in Turkey after earthquakes, but this time there was no one for them to find. They immediately changed their ways. There was no barking or scratching. Anna just stared at me with a fixed stare when she would find something. She found a rescue vehicle, but it was buried and we couldn’t get to it. It was chaos that first day, many of the first people on the scene were deployment officers and chiefs and they were all dead and buried in the rubble.

“While we were working, Building Seven [of the World Trade Center] collapsed. I was very scared. At one point that night, the halogen lights were lighting up the acres and acres of rubble and I looked over the wreckage and saw a fire burning on the fifth floor of a nearby building.”

Sarah and Anna worked for many hours, sleeping on the sidewalk that first night. “After that we slept at the Jacob Javits (Convention) Center. We weren’t allowed to see much TV; what we were doing took enough of a toll. So many people provided such kindness and generosity. After the first day or so of eating army rations, we were brought all kinds of fresh food and one woman talked her way past the guards to bring us all some comfort food–Edy’s Ice Cream. She even brought Dixie Cups for the dogs to have some. I’ll never forget that. The public outpouring was phenomenal.

“One day a woman came and sat down and asked me about Anna and myself. She was very friendly and personal and took the time to talk to a lot of us and thank us. It was Diane DiFrancesco, the first lady of New Jersey. The Governor was up ahead on official business, but (his wife) took the time to stop and talk. She was very kind.”

After 10 days of grim and exhaustive searching, Sarah, her dog, Anna, and the rest of the crew were sent home. “We’d already stayed two days longer than a normal shift. People were still coming up to us begging us to keep looking. It was very hard; they still had hope and we knew there was none.”

Anna had pulled ligaments in her back and legs, was burned from melting plastic and, unable to wear protective booties in the unsteady rubble, had very sore paws.

Sarah Atlas would soon be diagnosed with post traumatic stress syndrome and pneumonia.

“Anna couldn’t understand me through the mask (worn by rescuers to prevent inhalation of debris), so I had to take it off,” she explained. “When we got back, the President came to the base and thanked us each personally. His staff tried to hurry him along, but he insisted on thanking each of us, that meant a lot to us.”

Barrington, N.J., embraced Sarah Atlas and Anna, too; Sarah was interviewed in her hospital bed, with Anna beside her and Anna was given a canine good citizen award.

Life is slowly moving on for Sarah Atlas; she has missed her entire semester of paramedic school and will have to make it up.

“I didn’t know what would happen when I left harness racing and I still miss it, but I guess everything happens for a reason. It [working at Ground Zero] was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Anna and I are not the same. This will stay with us the rest of our lives. The first little enjoyment I’ve been able to feel was when the ‘trick or treaters’ came. I protested the Vietnam War, but my views have been completely changed by this.”

“(The experience) made me question whether I want to continue with search and rescue, but the answer is ‘yes’. I would do it again,” she said. “To be able to find someone, dead or alive, and either bring that person home or bring closure to their loved ones; to make that kind of difference is worth it.”

Gen Sullivan is manager of media relations for Harness Racing Communications, a division of the U.S. Trotting Association.

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