“The Unspoken Bond”
Frank Shane, and Nikie
Ground Zero Recovery Service
Frank Shane, a professional dog handler and trauma therapist and founder of the K-9 Disaster Relief Organization, had to improvise when he brought his golden retriever, Nikie, down to Ground Zero. There was no protocol for anything—from the kind of footwear Nikie should wear to how Frank should deal with the unfathomable grief of 9/11. Yet from the moment Frank and Nikie stepped onto the site, they both knew they had a job to do. As it turned out, a pair of soft ears and a wagging tail offered one of the best ways to connect to the people on Ground Zero.
Soon after the attacks, Nikie and I were working the Family Assistance Center when a woman made a beeline for us. Trained in crisis intervention, I had decided to bring Nikie to the Center at Pier 94, set up by the city to help families of the missing or dead, because I thought he might help some of the kids whose parents were navigating this unbelievable tragedy.
A woman tackled Nikie and threw her arms around him. “Hello,” I said. The woman didn’t respond, and she didn’t let go. “What’s your name?” I tried again. No response. Despite Nikie’s and my many experiences working with people in hospitals and brain trauma centers, we had never elicited this kind of emotion before. A mental health worker came over and began to talk to the woman about Nikie. When she finally did speak, the woman said she had a dog . . . her name was Ginger. “My husband loved to throw a yellow ball to Ginger,” she said. Slowly, I became aware that the woman needed financial assistance because her husband, who was missing, was the breadwinner of the family.
In that moment, I recognized the power of an animal in making a human connection. I had learned about the incredible ability of dogs—and in particular Nikie—to communicate while working with him in a New Jersey brain trauma center years before 9/11.
Nikie, a majestic golden retriever, was smart and intuitive. But I didn’t know just how smart until I saw him in action at the trauma center. Nikie knew how to carefully step around the cords next to a patient’s bed. If a patient was alert, he approached for a scratch or some kind of contact. Often the connectivity between him and patients broke through obstacles that doctors and nurses couldn’t overcome.
The unspoken bond that animals can make with people is real, and I knew it could be helpful to those suffering after 9/11. Clearly this was not pet therapy at a nursing home. You were dealing with the raw nerves of a tragedy on a scale that no one had ever seen before. Nikie and I could be the bridge between the scared, confused or shut down and the resources that could help make them better.
Days later, I drove my jeep down Broadway, through armed police and military checkpoints, with Nikie beside me in the passenger seat. We were going to Ground Zero. We had the credentials but no idea if this was going to work. I had no protocol, no script.
As we headed south and the streets became deserted except for debris, the scene turned surreal. Manhattan looked like a war zone. I stopped the jeep in front of St. Paul’s Chapel because Church Street was obliterated. A Humvee with military troops holding M-16s blocked the street. I asked them where I could park, and they looked at me like I was from a different planet. “Anywhere you want.” I looked at Nikie. As his handler, I had to be the leader of the pack, unafraid and in charge. This was obedience 101. If I got scared, I would transmit it directly to him. But I couldn’t mask my emotions; downtown New York was destroyed. So here we were, a guy and his dog.
I knelt down and put Nikie’s boots over his paws. Typically, he hates putting them on, but for the first time he didn’t fuss at all. That’s when I paused and looked at him. What am I doing? Am I here just so I can say I was at Ground Zero? We hadn’t gone more than a few feet when a firefighter approached us, got down on one knee and held Nikie. From that moment on, I didn’t have any doubt that we had important work to do at Ground Zero, even if I wasn’t sure what it would be. Finally, the firefighter stood up and told me that my dog had the same color hair as his best friend and brother who had died in the attacks. The three of us started walking down Church Street, past a makeshift respite tent, talking the whole way. I didn’t know anything about firefighter culture. I didn’t realize “brother” is lingo for a fellow firefighter. And I didn’t understand how much emotion they had. Like a lot of other people, I just saw a uniform. Walking over glass and pieces of the destroyed buildings, we arrived at Ladder 10-10 on Liberty Street. When we were about to part, he turned to us and said, “When will Nikie be on again?” I replied that we didn’t have a schedule. “I would like to see him again,” he said. “Could you bring him over tomorrow night?”
I spent nine months on Ground Zero. Every day, Nikie and I were learning, adapting, and then learning and adapting some more. I saw firsthand the tremendous toll that the rescue and recovery effort took on EMTs, ironworkers, crane operators, firefighters and anyone else sifting through the debris. I didn’t approach them unless they were taking a break, and because the sense of urgency was so great, people didn’t stay in the rest areas for long. So I had to work quickly. With the lights on all the time and constant noise, day and night did not exist.
When they found remains, everything and everyone stopped. Once, when the remains of a firefighter were discovered, we stayed at the bottom of Ground Zero after the body had gone up with bagpipes in tow. A firefighter leaned over Nikie, and he didn’t need to say a word. We walked with him to the top while a wind vortex blew papers around so it looked like it was snowing.
On the most superficial level, a guy with his dog offered a small break from the intensity. Folks would start talking to me after greeting Nikie, and I had to be a well-educated listener. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is let victims tell their story – – you want to interject and console them. Instead I assessed: Some needed to know it was OK to take breaks; others needed more structured help and a referral. There were ways to solve problems and prevent them.
Credentialed with his picture, Nikie was a worker with full access to even restricted areas. Within a few weeks, I put together a veterinary protocol for Nikie that included putting talcum powder in his boots and weighing him every day. We would work eight-hour shifts on the site, but he always had his rest time. People became very protective of him. Soon I didn’t have to carry a collapsible bowl for Nikie to drink or eat. I always knew there was food and water for him wherever we went. We would take naps on the pews of St. Paul’s church. With his head on my stomach, he’d be snoring away. The fabric of Ground Zero was made up of people from all walks of life, all colors, all religions, and all jobs. You never heard anyone complain. There was a perfect bond of brotherhood that could never be replicated. That’s why the hardest day for all of us was May 28, 2002, when we were set to leave the site. Despite the unbelievable achievement of this group—that they had cleaned up the site in much less time and for less money than thought possible – – a family was literally coming apart. After the last steel beam was cut, workers would march up the ramp to Liberty Street, and that would be that. As much as this was a place of destruction, it was difficult to imagine leaving it behind.
An EMT was sitting on the ground talking to Nikie.”I will leave Ground Zero, but it will never leave me.” With tears on his cheeks, he stroked Nikie. “All I’m taking home with me is the DNA I’ve inhaled from being here for nine months.”
Another worker, picking up a few stones, said that he wanted to take something tangible home with him.
“I can’t. This is sacred ground”
That gave me an idea. A couple of days before the last beam was to be cut, I went over to Apollo Flag, a store in New Jersey, where I would buy Nikie’s flag scarves that he wore around his neck. We had gone through close to 100 scarves since I gave them away as a token of people’s bond with Nikie.
I asked a big guy named Gary, who was one of the owners, if he knew where I could get my hands on about 2,000 flags. I told him about Nikie and me, our work at Ground Zero and the closing ceremonies. I wanted to get flags for all the workers, but I didn’t have money to pay for them. “Don’t worry about that,” he said. “Just tell me how many flags you need.”
May 28, 2002
Last Steel Beam 1001B Ceremony
Over 2,000 hand-folded American Flags were given to honor and pay tribute to the thousands
who gave of their time, risked their lives, sacrificed their health, faced unfathomable grief
and never asked for anything in return.
Nikie at the top of the 7-story ramp with his firefighter “brother” as the flags were given out.
Until the book “9/11: Stories of Courage, Heroism and Generosity“ was published commemorating
the tenth anniversary of September 11th, no one but Nikie and his brother knew that
a pair of soft ears and a wagging tail made it all possible.
ADAPTED FROM “9/11: STORIES OF COURAGE, HEROISM AND GENEROSITY”
(ZAGAT SURVEY), COMPILED BY TIM ZAGAT.
The Last Steel Beam 1001B
On Display at 9/11 Memorial Museum
Article Published in the Wall Street Journal
© 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Photos © 2001 – 2014 K-9 Disaster Relief – Associated Press – St. Paul’s Chapel –
Zagat Publishing All Rights Reserved
About the K-9 Disaster Relief Organization: A non-profit humanitarian organization to help traumatized victims and children of disasters and critical incidents through Canine Disaster Relief Services. In addition to providing courses, community outreach, workshops and speaking appearances, the organization is collaborating with the National September 11 Memorial Museum through its innovative programs designed for children, parents and caregivers.