Mission Stories

Train for the worst. Hope for the best.

NDSD handlers and their canine teammates travel to major disaster scenes, each time wondering what unique challenges they will face there. Read on to learn more about some of our major deployments…..

Oklahoma City Bombing, 1995

Bruce and Hunter face their first large-scale disaster.
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KAL Airliner Crash, 1997

La Fond Davis discusses the difficulty of searching in high heat, high humidity and deep mud.

Oklahoma Tornado, 1999

La Fond Davis and Sunny look for the last missing person.
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World Trade Center Collapse, 2001

Jane David and Kita face unimaginable tragedy in New York City.

Columbia Space Shuttle, 2003

Kent Olson and Thunder encounter difficult terrain and a host of native wildlife in their shuttle debris searches.

Hurricane Katrina, 2005

Four of our K-9 teams have been deployed with the Washington Urban Search and Rescue Task Force (WATF-1) to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Updates are available via Pierce County's Emergency Information Website.

Oklahoma City Bombing, 1995

Hunter was still fresh from his search and rescue training when the call came on April 19, 1995. The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City had been blown up. There was hope that some people might be alive under the rubble. Could Hunter come? Hunter and his handler, Bruce Speer, left immediately as part of the elite Puget Sound Task Force of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“It was very emotional for all of us,” Speer recalls. “We had been training for natural disasters, and then this. It was a big difference, because someone had done this on purpose.” It was soon clear that no one else would be found alive in the wreckage. Hunter also went on stress patrol. He was available to searchers as they came in from the site, for play, for petting, for a momentary respite from their overwhelming anxieties and sorrows.

Hunter just loves his job, loves the searching, the roaming over rubble, the fierce games of tug-of-war that are his rewards. He is fearless, agile, and focused – so focused that Speer is already planning how he will keep Hunter happy when the shepherd’s physical talents begin to fade with age. “I’ll have to keep him thinking he has some job to do. He’ll be retired, but he won’t understand that.”

Written by Kit Carlson

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Bruce and Hunter at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, which honors the victims, survivors, rescuers, and all who were changed forever on April 19, 1995. It encompasses the now-sacred soil where the Murrah Building once stood, capturing and preserving forever the place and events that changed the world."

Read more at: www.oklahomacitynationalmemorial.org

KAL Crash, 1997

In August 1997, KAL Flight 801 crashed 3 miles short of the airport in Guam, where it dove straight into a hill located at the bottom of a deep valley. During the crash, the plane broke a large ground fuel line, which contributed to the difficulty of the rescue operations. In addition, the valley had a creek running through it that became dammed up by the plane’s fuselage, causing mid-calf-deep mud in the search area. One week later after the crash, three canine teams and one search team manager were sent from WATF-1 to search for human remains. The three teams, who were also all members of Northwest Disaster Search Dogs, were Bruce Speer and Hunter, Marcia Koenig and Coyote, and myself and Sunny.

Once on the ground, we encountered numerous obstacles in our search efforts, such as poisonous toads, poisonous snakes, 6’ tall saw grass (which was appropriately named), deep mud, and very high heat and humidity. Although we worked in shifts early in the morning and late in the evening, two of the canines were treated for heat-related problems and dehydration. While one of the canines was working in the mud, it came into contact with hydraulic fluid and was treated for first-degree burns to its paws. Although the search conditions were quite difficult for both canine and handler, the canines were successful in helping to find small pieces of human remains, thus allowing family members to have some type of closure from this tragedy.

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Written by La Fond Davis

Oklahoma City Tornado, 1999

In May 1999, a Level 5 tornado tore through Oklahoma City, leveling entire neighborhoods and commercial buildings. At one week into the incident, eight canine teams from across the country, including myself and Sunny, were brought in by FEMA to assist in searching for those still reported missing. The main focus of the search was in neighborhoods, which consisted of churches, small shopping malls, schools and houses made from wood construction. Hazards encountered were many, including splintered wood, nails, sheet metal, deep basements, and lawn/garden products mixed with pesticides and household chemicals. Another problem was the difficulty of navigating to specific search areas, since road signs and landmarks had been wiped out by the tornado.

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By the second day of the search, officials had only one person still unaccounted for. From that time on, the dogs mainly searched the tornado’s path from the person’s point last seen, with the exception of unsafe areas around freeways. On the last day of the search, the victim was found under some dirt next to the freeway in one of the areas deemed unsafe to search with canines.

Although no missing persons were discovered in the areas that the canines searched, their mission was still considered successful. Due to the help of the canine teams, large areas of the city were quickly searched and declared clear, thereby allowing the search efforts to move onto to new areas quickly.

World Trade Center Deployment, 2001

On 9/11/01, the Seattle area was awakened to the terrible news of a catastrophe occurring in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. I sent my kids off to school, watched the unending footage on the news, and wondered whether our task force would be deployed, and to which site. As it turned out, Washington Task Force One would be sent in a week later as part of the second wave of responding teams. After about two hours of sleep on our arrival day, Kita and I reported to the forward Base of Operations near the Trade Center, and I got my first glimpse of the devastation. To say that I was stunned would be an understatement. I wondered whether Kita and I were up to the task. We had never trained on anything approaching the scale of this rubble pile, and the hazards were daunting. As it turned out, Kita had no qualms about climbing over, under and through the rubble—all her agility training had proven itself.

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As to our mission of searching for live victims, it was not to be. Although my head told us that no one could still be alive after a week in that terrible, smoking pile of debris, my heart ached for just one living person to be found. Instead, Kita and I turned to the job of recovery of the remains of those trapped in the rubble. She was able to successfully locate remains in several locations, and I sincerely hope that identification through DNA was possible, for the sake of the family and friends left behind. After six days of working at the site, I left New York City with ambivalent feelings of sadness and grief over the loss of life, relief at the prospect of heading home and regret that we couldn’t do more to help. But I also have wonderful memories of the support of the everyday citizens there, who showed their immense strength of heart in the midst of unimaginable tragedy. Kita and I arrived home ten days after we had left, proud to have been a part of the recovery effort and feeling more than ever that our training had purpose.

By Jane David

Shuttle Columbia, 2002

Article coming soon.

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