Veterinary 9/11 first-responders were local

Shared experience forged lifelong ties

Published: December 01, 2011
By Phyllis DeGioia

Dr. Michael Garvey (left), one of the first veterinarians on the scene of the World Trade Center attack, bathes one of the many dogs that served at the site. Bathing was an essential step in the care of the animals, owing to the smoke, dust and debris. Photo courtesy of Suffolk County SPCA.
Editor’s note: Like other news organizations, the VIN News Service observed the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with coverage recalling the contributions of emergency responders in New York City. In the veterinary community, most of the attention has focused on a formal network of responders who make up Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams. Shortly after the anniversary of 9/11, the VIN News Service became aware of the work of veterinary doctors and staff who were not part of the official response teams dispatched to New York but who stepped up spontaneously to share their medical know-how and intimate knowledge of community resources. This is an account of their experiences. 

A few minutes after the first plane hit the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, as Drs. Barbara Kalvig and James M. Shorter drove from New Jersey to their Manhattan clinic, the veterinarians saw smoke downtown.

A short while later, the New York Police Department (NYPD) called the Animal Medical Center (AMC) to request help. Dr. Michael Garvey, a critical-care specialist there at the time, left immediately with some of his staff.

"We were down there from 10 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11, with this ragtag group that very quickly grew into a reasonably sophisticated triage and ER hospital,” Garvey recalled.

Garvey’s description tidily sums up how veterinarians and veterinary staff from different parts of town came together at Ground Zero to form a coherent, cohesive team to support the search-and-rescue dogs that were critical in saving human lives at the disaster site.

Unlike the personnel from AMC, Kalvig and Shorter didn’t receive a call for help; they just knew medical personnel were needed. The pair cancelled the day's appointments at the uptown veterinary hospital where they worked, filled technician Angelita Miranda's car with medical supplies and headed downtown with Miranda and another technician, Corina Quist.

Kalvig and Shorter weren't even thinking about dogs that day.

"We went down there because we were medical personnel and even if we ended up just standing there and handing out bandages we knew we could be more useful than the average non-medical citizen," Kalvig said. "From the reports coming across the news, there was suspected to be tens of thousands of victims who would need help. As veterinary doctors and technicians, we were all medically trained and had a hospital full of supplies.”

Ten years later, Shorter remembers vividly the dust and an eerie calm downtown.

"We saw all this dust even though we were a ways from Chambers Street," he said, referring to a location two blocks from the skyscraper's collapse. "All the stores were abandoned but doors were open. As you got closer to Ground Zero, (the dust) was almost a foot thick on the ground. There was dust on half-eaten food left in McDonald's, dust on Hallmark cards. It was so calm, but it was like being in a movie."

Ever resourceful, veterinary responders used a turkey fryer to heat water for warm baths. Photo courtesy of Suffolk County SPCA.
Shorter, Kalvig and crew were waved through security checkpoints because they were wearing medical scrubs. Law-enforcement officers directed them to the front of the courthouse in Federal Square. Their medical supplies were the first ones at that plaza. Some physicians on the scene used colored tape to delineate triage areas. 

Shorter recalled being filled with angst and butterflies, worried whether they’d be able to handle whatever was coming. However, wounded people didn’t arrive. It turns out that people either were killed or walked away.

“It was a very spontaneous thing that was occurring," Kalvig said. "Civilians were arriving, more doctors and EMTs. We were using shower curtains and fabric from nearby stores for beds on the ground. We were waiting for enough supplies to get there before people started arriving. Nobody came because there was nobody to bring out, aside from what few people had gotten out. There was no big ambulance crisis."

But there was no shortage of activity and distractions. For example, Kalvig recalled, "There was a bomb threat after we heard about the Pentagon."

In eastern Long Island, Roy Gross, head of the Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), called NYPD to let them know he had a mobile animal spay-neuter hospital (nicknamed MASH). It was one of three such buses in the country at the time. The SPCA had taken delivery of the bus just one month earlier; it had never been used.

The unit was equipped like a stationary hospital — with an operating room, heated table, stabilizers and air conditioning — and had emergency lights and sirens, as well. Gross had had the foresight to equip it for emergencies, reasoning: "We could provide veterinary care or move animals if we needed to evacuate animals from fires."

Of course, he and his colleagues never envisioned anything like 9/11. NYPD asked Gross to bring the MASH to the disaster zone. It was in place by 6 p.m. that evening, situated two blocks from the "pile," or collapse site, and quickly became an integral piece of the rescue operation.

"It was parked on West Street and Chambers and we staffed it 24/7," said Garvey, the veterinarian who had come from the AMC. The SPCA staff members, he said, “were invaluable for logistics. They commandeered space, they parked the bus and then starting moving tables and things further back as cars left, so we had space for tents and triage stations and supplies and techs. Without them, we would have been still scratching our heads wondering how to begin."

Kalvig and Shorter, meanwhile, were connected with Drug Enforcement Agency agents, who drove them to their hospital to collect injectable medications and sedatives for potential emergency veterinary use. They found AMC colleagues at a nearby high school treating police dogs and gave them their supplies.

The evening of the disaster, a call went out for more veterinarians. In Queens, Dr. John Charos learned from a client about the call. Charos ended up spending the better part of the next seven weeks down by the pile, taking care of police, fire, therapy and freelance search-and-rescue dogs, plus pets rescued from nearby homes. (Military dogs were cared for at a separate location by Dr. Cindy Otto, an associate professor of critical care at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.)

The morning after the Twin Towers collapsed, the veterinarians realized the MASH had never been stocked. Kalvig, Shorter and Garvey brought from their hospitals items such as fluids, antibiotics, masks, bandage materials and IV catheters. Technicians Miranda and Quist helped organize those supplies.

Soon, a new issue arose: People who lived in the evacuation zone but were away at work when the towers collapsed were not immediately allowed home to retrieve pets. It fell to the veterinarians to look after those pets when responders brought out the animals. 

The Suffolk County SPCA’s brand-new mobile animal spay-neuter hospital, dubbed MASH, was deployed for the first time near the site of the Twin Towers collapse on Sept. 11, 2001. Photo courtesy of Suffolk County SPCA.
"At one point, I was approached by two physicians who had rescued toy poodles from a nearby apartment building," Kalvig recounted. "We kept them safe at the MASH unit and then took them back to our hospital for safekeeping until their owners could be located and they could be reunited. I began a sign-up sheet for people coming by the MASH unit to report or check for a lost/abandoned animal.”

More veterinarians started pouring in. Garvey said local veterinary associations were invaluable in getting their members to support the work and send supplies. Kalvig was asked to schedule shifts for veterinarians and technicians. During the next seven weeks, there was never an empty shift. 

“Early on, a couple of dogs fell into some of the fingers in the pile and had mild trauma,” Charos said. “We needed to get them into a place for an IV. We started building a cleaning station outside the bus that continued to grow to have 10 or 12 stations." 

Garvey said they soon realized that the dogs were getting covered with smoke, dust and “who knows what else,” not to mention human remains, so all dogs were washed when they came off the pile. The set-up for baths reflected skilled improvisation.

"We cut water jugs in half and we got a hookup with a fire hydrant," Shorter said. "We put detergent and soap in the jug and sponged the dogs down. The first day there were a couple of mild injuries, small cuts, pad injuries, irritated eyes. We used those jugs for the first few days. The camping shower came three or four days later." 

Cold water from the camping shower was mixed with water heated in a turkey fryer fueled with propane to provide a warm bath. Charos said that they began using chlorhexidine for cleansing and deodorizing, and a little peroxide.

The first responders set up protocols so that the new help knew what to do. “Everyone had to follow it,” Charos said. “Not a debatable situation. Keep it minimal, and address the factors we were dealing with — environment, hours, weather conditions.” 

Cases ranged from simple dehydration, stress diarrhea and eye irritation to true emergencies.

“One dog fell into a hole and all his orifices were filled with dust so he couldn’t breathe,” Garvey said. The handler carried the dog to them. “Fortunately, we got his airway open. That was Wuss, a 13-year-old Belgian shepherd police dog from St. Louis. Officer Chris Christenson and his dog jumped into the car on that Tuesday morning and drove straight to New York. Wuss fell face first into dust and almost died. He was a bit blue, but (after treatment) he was okay. A couple of days later, Wuss collapsed from heat stroke and exhaustion, and I told his handler it was time to take Wuss home, and he did. His next S&R dog was named Liberty.”

On the fourth day after the catastrophe, Kalvig and Shorter returned to their hospital. There, Kalvig, Quist, Miranda and clinic receptionist Tanja Winkler continued scheduling shifts for responding veterinarians and technicians.

The team prepared packets of information for incoming volunteers: what to bring, what to wear, where to go, what to expect, who the contact person was, the best access, what identification to bring. They ended up handling logistics and volunteers, booties, inquiries from around the country, contributions of dog food. The vets at the pile would call to say what they needed.

At the MASH, search and rescue teams checked in with the veterinarians before going on the pile, and each team's time on the pile was monitored. Dehydration was the biggest concern, so the dogs were given fluids before and after shifts. Once supplies were steady, every dog entering the pile got booties, as well. 

"When everything is turned upside down and coated with inches of silt, only a dog's keen sense of smell would have a chance of finding a survivor," Garvey said. "So we did whatever we needed to keep those dogs working, without compromising such brave animals."

Suffolk County's Gross coordinated the round-the-clock shifts of SPCA personnel known as peace officers. 

"Our peace officers escorted residents to retrieve pets and small belongings, brought the pets to the MASH unit, treated the pets, then brought people back to Pier 40," Gross said. "We treated all of the S&R (search and rescue) and therapy dogs on our MASH unit, and a number of tents were set up around the MASH unit. We also treated handlers so there were jokes about horse doctors; we gave handlers saline solution for their eyes and treated first-aid scrapes. The most important thing they did was rehydrate the dogs and generally that was done by IV. It looked like something out of a war movie. The dogs had to be hydrated and decontaminated, bathed, eyes cleaned out.”

After the first days of working together on the site, a tight loop was created for the coordination during the weeks to come: Suffolk County SPCA ran the MASH, Garvey was the emergency medical contact and medical liaison at AMC, Charos was the on-site veterinary supervisor, and Kalvig and Shorter acted as points of contact and handled scheduling, volunteer coordination and supplies.

The fact that the veterinarians who emerged as leaders in the national response effort were from the community was no accident, the volunteers believe. “The initial and most important response to any disaster is going to be local,” Garvey said. “It has to be.”

Added Kalvig: “I don't know if there has ever been as large a private veterinary response, and it was a huge success. ... Those dogs were (able to be) down there because there were all these vets and techs who came out of the woodwork, leaving their family and work, to be down there,” she said. “As vets, we provided the resources to give the greatest chance to find people alive.”

One lasting outcome of their work was the creation of a New York City Veterinary Emergency Response Team (VERT). The group had formed a close connection with the mayor’s office, and decided that because the city had been so unprepared for a disaster, they should make a formal disaster plan for the future. VERT’s plan was set in motion earlier this year as Hurricane Irene approached the city. (The storm fortunately did not affect New York as ferociously as forecast.)

Working at the pile brought the group together emotionally, tying them together for life. The small group, which included Dr. Pam Mox and the late Dr. Cliff Carnoc, keeps in regular contact.

“There's this bond we have with these people,” Shorter said. “We'll love them forever and they'll love us forever just for having shared that. It was one thing in your life that you knew you did the right thing.”

VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.