Upper Freehold woman, dog help with rescue

Look for victims in rubble that once was the World Trade Center.

By: Mark Moffa
   UPPER FREEHOLD — Chewbacca played on Alice Holmes’ 200-acre farm Monday, glad to be home.
   "He feels a lot better now," Ms. Holmes said. "He’s ready mentally to go back."
   Chewbacca, a 4-year-old German shepherd, spent last week looking for victims in the rubble that once was the World Trade Center.
   He’s a rescue dog, a canine member of the New Jersey Urban Search and Rescue Task Force who is trained to search for live people.
   Ms. Holmes, his handler, was in Spanish class at Rutgers University when her pager went off at 9:22 a.m. Sept. 11. She was to report to the Lakehurst Naval Air Station immediately for deployment to the World Trade Center in New York.
   No one in her class had any idea two hijacked commercial airliners had collided with the twin towers or that two others still were in the air.
   She raced to her home at the Black Pine Nursery on Emleys Hill Road and then to Lakehurst, where a tractor trailer loaded with supplies, New Jersey Transit buses, and State Police escorts were waiting to take the 160-member team to New York.
   Other members of the team include Washington Fire Lt. Kevin Brink and Firefighter Jason Palmer, who are still with the group in New York.
   Ms. Holmes is one of 10 members of the team with a search dog. She returned home for a couple days of classes, but hoped to return to New York on Wednesday.
   In talking Monday of her week in New York, she attempted to describe an indescribable scene.
   "The World Trade Center is totally different than anything you can imagine," she said, describing crushed fire trucks and tons of twisted metal. "People expect to see big chunks of cement taken away. But there’s no cement — it’s powder. There’s six inches of white powder on everything."
   When the team arrived, they were assigned to 7 World Trade Center, but it collapsed as they were preparing to enter it. The group then was redirected to "the pile" of the twin towers.
   "I don’t think anybody could ever be trained well enough to handle something like this," Ms. Holmes said. "You really weren’t finding live people."
   Chewbacca, who is trained to climb over rubble and to stand and bark when he senses a live human, was not barking last week. Instead, he would stop over a spot, paw at it, and whimper.
   "You could tell by his body language that there’s something there," Ms. Holmes said.
   Some dogs at the site were trained to sense for cadavers. "But there was so much (cadaver) scent on that pile that the dogs at some points were overwhelmed," she said. "We can’t imagine what that’s like for our dogs."
   They entered buildings surrounding the fallen towers, looking for any sign of life. A system was established, Ms. Holmes said, in which the outside of buildings were marked by engineers and rescue workers.
   Engineers checked the buildings routinely for structural stability and rescue workers made marks to let others know where they had already checked and when.
   Before entering any structure, Ms. Holmes said, permission must be obtained by the task force’s safety officer.
   "You have to constantly be aware that you could endanger yourself and your dog," she said.
   Any time Chewbacca would note he detected human scent, the location would be marked, either with a flag or orange spray paint.
   "Others would dig through the pile to see what was there," she said. As soon as Ms. Holmes and Chewbacca were finished searching one area someone would yell "Dog over here!" she said, keeping the duo in constant action.
   The days and nights are a blur.
   "You don’t know what time of day or night it is," she said.
   Ms. Holmes and Chewbacca worked past 2 a.m. that first day, stopping only to eat and so the dog could rest.
   She had to keep washing Chewbacca’s feet to keep the powder from accumulating and congealing like cement. Veterinarians were on the scene to see the dogs when needed, and every night each dog was bathed.
   For the human rescue workers there were medical checks and Critical Incident Stress briefings daily to help them cope with the inhuman conditions.
   Ms. Holmes and Chewbacca, who were on the day shift, would rise around 6 a.m. each day to continue searching. Work days were not supposed to exceed 12 hours, she said, but many workers — and dogs — persisted longer.
   Some images are burned into her memory.
   "I’ll never forget the eyes of those firefighters, pleading with us, begging us to take our dogs and find people," she said.
   Yet, as of the Messenger Press’ Tuesday evening deadline, only five people were found alive, none since the day after the attack.
   "It’s kind of depressing and hard to keep going," Ms. Holmes said, adding that "the desire to help" is what kept her going.
   She had to return home for a couple days. Ms. Holmes had no voice Sunday and Monday wasn’t much better.
   "The air is so full of the cement dust and it’s got asbestos in it," she said. "But right now I don’t have time to deal with that."
   Instead, the special education major spoke to her professors and planned to return to the site this week.
   And she had nothing but praise for her dog, Chewbacca.
   "He’s got a job to do and he knows his job," she said. "He’ll search until he falls over."