Meet One of the Dog Teams
Chris Selfridge talks about working at Ground Zero with Riley
The dog in this iconic photo from the relief effort at Ground Zero was Riley, a golden retriever who came to the wreckage with his person, Chris Selfridge from Pennsylvania. We spoke with him about working with Riley in the wreckage of the World Trade Center:
Michael Mountain: What’s happening in that photo?
Chris Selfridge: We’d set up what’s called a highline system. The ropes are connected to a stokes basket. It’s basically a trolley system. We set it up on Saturday the 15th. We’d been assigned to help search the remains at the North Tower. And the rope system was transport equipment across a very rugged portion of the site. And then we just decided it was the fastest and safest way to transport the dog back and forth, too. The photo is of him returning back from the [rubble of] the North Tower at the end of the day.
M.M.: Did you have to go over on a trolley, too?
C.S.: No, we sent Riley over while I walked over. It took me the better part of a half-hour to get across, walking over all the debris and stuff. And the guys already over there, who were also from the Pennsylvania team, took care of him until I got there.
M.M.: I remember how, at the first aid center, there were lots of dogs with cut paws and burned feet.
C.S.: Yes, it was much safer to send them over on the highline.
M.M.: What still stands out to you, 10 years later, about working with the dogs then?
C.S.: It was their determination. Riley’s job was to find living people, but the dogs began to realize there were deceased people there, too, and that they needed to help try to recover them. And so there were times when the dogs would act different. Instead of barking, which would be the signal he’d found someone alive, Riley would do something different like starting to paw at the ground or start flipping bone fragments out of the debris. And then we’d look around and maybe find a body or a body part or something.
M.M.: All told, there weren’t many people found alive.
C.S.: It was very frustrating. I believe the last living person found was 26 hours after the collapse. I remember on the afternoon of September 12th, we were working in an area directly below where you see him in the photo. I’d had to explain to people that he was a live-find dog and he needed room to do his job. So they’d step back a bit, but it was still always difficult [with all the noise and the chaos], so we’d always send in a second dog to confirm a live find. But we didn’t have an opportunity to do that at that time. And so about 20 minutes later, Riley went back to that same spot and started to bark. I knew wholeheartedly what was going on, but we were never able to locate anybody. We brought in sensitive listening equipment, but it was impossible and then there were fires constantly starting everywhere and we were ordered out of the area because it was so dangerous.
The way the towers collapsed – in a pancake fashion – it was just thousands and thousands of pounds of concrete coming down flat on another thousands and thousands of pounds of slab. And then continuing down, one on top of another.
In nine days of searching through all that office space, we didn’t find even a single desk or filing cabinet. All I ever found was the touch pad of one telephone. Everything was just pulverized.
M.M.: Were you ever asked to do things that made you uncomfortable?
C.S.: Yes. Going to New York City! It was a very scary situation from the time we got there to the time we got home. But we worked together as a team and if there was something we felt wasn’t safe for the dogs then we would say, and we would try to approach the situation from another direction.
M.M.: Riley’s health wasn’t affected as badly as some of the other dogs there.
C.S.: He died at age 13 in February 2010 from complications after surgery for a large mass in his abdomen. I can’t really say how much he was affected [by all the toxic fumes and debris].
I got Riley in 1996. I was living in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and we became one of FEMA’s search-and-rescue teams there. In September 2001, my wife and I had come home from the beach on the Sunday. And after the attack on Tuesday morning, FEMA started deploying the forces, and we were in New York City by the end of the day. We were there from the evening of the 11th to the 19th.
M.M.: What do you say to people who may be thinking of training their dog for search-and-rescue?
C.S.: First thing is not about the dog. It’s to ask yourself if you are a search-and-rescue person. Search-and-rescue is a lifestyle, not a job. You need to know you’re getting into this for the right reasons. It’s a huge, huge commitment. One thing you can do then is go to disasterdog.org and you’ll find people who are training FEMA-certified dogs.
A special tribute
Heroes in all shapes, sizes, and breeds
The dogs and their people who risked their lives to save others
Meet One of the Dog Teams
“We were a team, and if something wasn’t safe for the dogs, we would say.”
Pier 40: Heart of the Operation
How the animal rescue teams came together
The Four-Legged Heroes
How Dorado led his blind person to safety
Search & Rescue, Canine Style
The Suffolk Country crew sets up the MASH unit
Where Are They Now?
The dogs of 9/11 – 10 years later
Pets in Peril
Tweety-Pye gets left behind
Diary of a K-9 Team
Paul Morgan and Cody join the FEMA team
Preparing for Animal Care in a Disaster
A few quick tips to help keep you safe
If You’re an Animal Organization
Working together to build an emergency coalition
A Snapshot of the E-mails
“I am an active duty Marine. My 10 cats and 2 dogs will not have a home if we go to war...”
A Memorial Roster
Many of the dogs who worked at Ground Zero suffered serious health problems and passed away in the years that followed.
A preview to radio talk-show host Steve Dale’s book called Dog Heroes of September 11th: A Tribute to America's Search and Rescue Dogs.
A Photo Diary
A good click-through photo story of the dogs at Ground Zero.
Posted September 10, 2011, by Michael Mountain