At 9:30 p.m., Sept. 11, 2001, Capt. John Frank was driving out of Savannah, Ga., at 110 miles per hour.
He arrived in New York City the next morning, and the canine team he was carrying signaled something was wrong.
They could immediately sense the smell of death, and it had a “tangy smell to it,” said Frank, a member of the K-9 Task Force and speaker at Overton Auditorium Friday morning.
With the first anniversary of the disaster approaching fast, the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine and the Auburn University Canine and Detection Research Institute hosted members of the K-9 Task Force, K-9 search and rescue handlers from Savannah, who spoke to a full crowd at at the vet school.
Frank told the audience that like everyone else, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing on television, but he knew immediately that he might be needed in New York.
Being one of only three East Coast organizations with a cadaver dog team, the crew responded “Code 3” by driving through the night with their lights and sirens on.
After numerous checkpoints where the task force was asked for identification and credentials, Frank said they were confronted by a New York City Port Authority officer who asked them to find his brother who was lost.
They had parked at least a mile away from ground zero because there were still cars and debris on fire.
The team finally reported to the Urban Search and Rescue team’s acting chief for their orders. The chief had been killed in the attacks.
Frank and his team had to go through the World Financial Center to get to ground zero. The electricity was out and there was constant smoke filling the air. As they made their way to ground zero, the team would see people walking in the opposite direction telling them, “Keep going, you’re almost there,” he said.
The debris was still falling from every direction and the teams of rescue workers had to be careful to watch every move that they made.
The crews feared the collapse of three more buildings in the surrounding areas, and Frank said that there were 100-foot holes in the ground from where debris had fallen from the towers.
“Everything at ground zero was colorless,” he said. “Only gray and white could be seen everywhere.
“It was like putting a potato in a microwave and it blowing up,” he said.
The team found 200 to 300 pieces of bodies an hour and put them anywhere they could in order to bring them back for DNA analysis.
This would allow the family members to know their loved ones had been recovered and could help bring them closure, he said.
Conditions for the workers were dangerous and uncomfortable. The air content was 50 percent asbestos and workers were coughing, had sinus problems and many flu symptoms for the five and a half months they were there.
The dogs were uncomfortable as well. Their legs were being sliced by the hot metal and debris. Frank and the other task force members tied kids’ tennis shoes to the dogs’ paws after they broke into local shoe stores.
Without the cadaver dogs, Frank said they would be “digging in the blind.”
He told of one firefighter who was looking for his dad and his brother, both firefighters as well. The crews would stop all machines and equipment in order to observe a moment of silence each time human remains were found.
The team’s vehicles were constantly covered with fliers of people who were missing in the disaster, and Frank said it was hard to look at the pictures of someone’s loved one and think that they wouldn’t be found alive, and maybe not at all.
Frank said he and his team thought from their first day at ground zero that they might not return home because the conditions were so dangerous, but after five and a half months, they left.
He said the first time they tried to leave they had barely gotten out of the city, when their cellular phones started to ring.
It was their active chief from ground zero telling them they needed them to return because the teams that had taken their place had already pulled out.
Frank told the audience that he didn’t have hard feelings toward those units that left because the work was emotionally demanding.
Eventually the K-9 Task Force returned to their homes, forever changed by the horrific things they had seen.
They found strength in support from the people with signs on the side of the roads in New York. President Bush’s visit was also a high point for Frank and his team, but it was nothing compared to going home, he said.
Since the attacks on Sept. 11, the K-9 Task Force members have traveled all around the country to tell others of their experiences.
Copyright Auburn Plainsman Online