Veterinarians recount Pentagon 9/11 search and rescue

Effort less publicized than Ground Zero’s but equally intense

Published: September 11, 2012
By Phyllis DeGioia

Photo by Dr. Mark Honaker
Canine handlers from Virginia wait while a mechanical claw removes a layer of flooring to enable another search for survivors or human remains amid the ruins of the Pentagon’s west side after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack.

When Drs. Mark Honaker and Mary Berry recall rescue efforts following terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, it’s not the rubble of New York City's World Trade Center that comes to mind.

The veterinarians were part of a lesser known search-and-rescue experience that happened near Washington, D.C., at the Pentagon, which took a hit from a hijacked airplane a half-hour after two other hijacked aircraft slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Moving at 530 mph and carrying about 10,000 gallons of fuel, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the west side of the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. 11 years ago today. All 64 people on the plane and another 125 people in the building were killed.

The casualties could have been worse but by fortunate coincidence, the Pentagon had just finished major renovations on that section of the building, which significantly strengthened the 29-acre World War II-era structure, according an article in National Defense Magazine.

The attack on the Pentagon has never drawn as much attention as the attack in New York City for two likely reasons: scale and secrecy.

Far more people died at the World Trade Center — 2,750 compared with 189 at the Pentagon. No homes, pets or private businesses were affected by the Pentagon crash. The structure burned and some floors collapsed but the building did not crumble out of the sky.

Moreover, as the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense, the Pentagon and what happens there is wrapped in secrecy. According to Berry, media were placed a quarter-mile away from the blast site, and explicit permission was required to interview anyone.

"The intensity of media attention was on the Towers," Berry said. "Also the Pentagon was in such complete lockdown that the media were more restricted. My impression is that with the Towers, it was a bit more of a free-for-all because it wasn't a military/government place, and the size was larger. It was more difficult to control entry at Towers."

Hoping the Pentagon incident will be remembered as more than a footnote in American history, Berry and Honaker agreed to share their experiences with the VIN News Service to commemorate the anniversary of the attacks.

Veterinarian accompanied dogs into wreckage

Photo by Dr. Mark Honaker
Handler Trish Cartino and her canine teammate Joey search the impact zone.

Honaker, an emergency care veterinarian in Virginia Beach, Va., went to the Pentagon as a member of Virginia Task Force 2 (VATF-2), an urban search and rescue team serving under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Honaker’s official task was to drive trucks. Unofficially, he took on the job of caring for the search and rescue (SAR) dogs who were key to finding survivors or human remains.

FEMA teams have medical units with physicians but not necessarily veterinarians, Honaker explained. Technically, physicians on the medical units serve working dogs as well as people. Practically speaking, though, Honaker said that when he is on a SAR mission, the dog handlers usually find him, regardless of his assigned job.

Arriving at the Pentagon less than 10 hours after the crash, Honaker and his team saw flames. The building was still burning. As a result, no SAR team was allowed in until the next morning.

“The general mentality of anyone on these teams is to start working, and that first night was a long night of waiting,” Honaker said. 

In fact, he had a long night and day of waiting: Honaker was assigned to the second 12-hour shift, and thus did not go in until 7 p.m. Sept. 12. At that point, VATF-2 was searching only for remains because any survivors already had been rescued. Honaker said the teams did find intact remains as many as nine days later.

Honaker stayed 11 days, taking care of 16 to 20 working dogs. Although he did not have to, the veterinarian chose to go in with the teams because if something happened to a dog, he wanted to be there.  

Honaker recounted: "There were two primary search areas. One was at the impact site where the floors (had) collapsed upon each other. It was known that a meeting was taking place in one of the rooms at that site and a number of people were unaccounted for. The slabs of concrete were fairly large so cranes was used to lift the pieces off – somewhat like peeling an onion. After the slab was removed, the underlying area was searched by the dogs and other search team members."

Sprinklers that ran for 24 hours after impact left the ground floor of the 5-story building flooded several inches deep. Honaker said surfaces were still so hot that you could burn an ungloved hand. Huge steel fireproof filing cabinets had blown over and roasted in the heat. Rescuers walked through a soupy mess formed by charred, wet paper.

Photo by Dr. Mark Honaker
Responders donned more protective gear as the mission unfolded. At the outset (top), workers did not wear Tyvek suits; later (bottom), they did.

For protection, the responders wore Tyvek suits, although not immediately, Honaker said. They also had respirators, helmets, goggles, gloves and steel-toed boots. Most searchers duct-taped their pant legs to their boots to prevent any contaminated water from leaking in.

In picking through the crash site, responders came across parts of the aircraft. "You'd go into a room and you could see a cabin window from the plane. In one case, you could make out the demarcation line of paint from the ‘American’ logo,” Honaker said. “Sometimes you'd see an entire window that got blown down the wall and got lodged in a room. You could see the turbines. I saw one engine, part of the landing gear."

Other search areas were those just outside the impact zone. "These were extremely difficult to search because of all the mangled debris present and the requirement that the ceilings be shored up to prevent further collapse," Honaker said.

Among his distinct memories of the event was watching military men, "big, hulking, strapping 19-year-old kids," hauling debris out with wheelbarrows. "I ... was extremely impressed with the job they were doing," Honaker said. "We could not have completed our job without their help."

Recovery work hot, painstaking

Three or four days after the attack, a second wave of responders arrived. Among them was Berry, a 43-year-old dog handler with New Mexico Task Force 1 who happens to be a veterinarian. Coming from Albuquerque, Berry and her 6-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, Dusty, stayed for five days.

Berry recalled the scene as surreal: "You walked through the offices that had minimal damage and there would be people's stuff, they'd just jumped up and left,” she said. “You could see cups of coffee. They didn't grab anything. It was kind of creepy to see that everyone just left in a sheer panic. Jackets, coats, purses, cell phones just lying there. They didn't have the presence of mind to grab their stuff.” 

Berry said dogs and handlers stayed in the “hot zone” for a relatively short period of time, on the order of 30 to 60 minutes. Then they emerged for rest and water — necessary because the full-body Tyvek suits and high humidity generated by water from fire suppression caused them to sweat heavily, risking overheating.

Handlers could not drink water while inside the building owing to their respirators, along with the fact that anything put into the mouth potentially could be contaminated by something toxic in the air.

Wearing respirators also made communicating with the dogs tricky. As Berry described it, handlers would have to pull down the respirators to give commands; otherwise, the dogs would hear nothing but muffled sound.

Recovery was done largely by hand. A bucket suspended by a 100-foot crane enabled a worker to take an aerial view to help guide the manual work. Honaker, who was 52 at the time, spent one night doing some hour-long rotations in the bucket while waiting for an area to be cleared for further searching.

Berry described the meticulous search system: "All areas the dogs alerted on as having scent of human remains were marked for further search and manual debris removal by rescue personnel," she recounted. "Discovered remains were removed by a special recovery team. Once a large area was deemed to be as thoroughly searched as possible, cranes and other large equipment would remove the debris and put it on a truck. Literally, this means that the crane would take a bite out of the crash site, grabbing whatever debris it could, and plunk it on the truck."

The debris was trucked to the opposite side of the Pentagon and spread out in a parking lot, Berry said, where it would be checked by cadaver dogs working with the FBI and other agencies. Government agents also combed through the rubble with rakes.

Photo by Bruce Berry
Arriving from New Mexico, Mary Berry and her yellow Labrador retriever Dusty spent five days sifting through the Pentagon rubble.

“It was sort of disturbing in that the remains that were there were so small, just small little pieces," Berry said.

At the crash site, Berry and Dusty at one point walked through a bathroom lined with mirrors that had broken and crashed to the floor. The glass cut one of Dusty’s pads.  

The stoic dog didn’t limp but Berry spotted bloody paw prints. Berry lightly bandaged the wound and they left the building for the team’s medical tent, where a team doctor helped her properly clean and dress the injury. On his next shift, Dusty sported a bootie to protect his bandage.

It might seem that SAR dogs should wear booties routinely for protection but there’s a reason they don’t, Berry explained:

"The issue is that dogs need to have their tactile ability with their feet," she said. "If you put a bootie on, they can't feel the ground in the same way or put their claws out when they need to, so it's not considered safe for them to wear booties in general. In case of an injury, that's different." 

None of the dogs on her team was seriously injured. That wasn’t a matter of mere luck, Berry said.  

"They're highly obedience trained," she said. "If a handler sees a particularly dangerous area, he'd get the dog out of it. The dogs don't leap off big things and impale themselves.”

The dogs also are trained in agility — but not like those who compete for sport, Berry said. “Agility in disaster dog training involves performing the obstacles slowly and carefully. They are trained on slippery surfaces and other surfaces so you can simulate what you might find on a mission,” she said. “As a result, we see far fewer injuries than you'd expect. It speaks well for the training program FEMA has developed for these dogs." 

Honaker said the most common issues he saw among SAR dogs at the Pentagon were mild — mostly diarrhea, some minor foot abrasions and ocular irritations.

As at the World Trade Center, the dogs were decontaminated at the end of each shift. Task force members lined up to clean dogs and scrub the human searchers' boots. The dogs were bathed, eyes rinsed, ears cleaned and feet washed thoroughly. "They had an assembly line set up like a human/doggie car wash," Berry said.  

Communication with the outside world was fairly limited, a difficult fact for the families of SAR team members. Honaker's wife Jan watched television constantly while he was on site. He said she ended up knowing more than he about the dangers.  

"We had a small collapse one day in the rubble, a little bit of noise. It gets your attention, but the irony was that she knew before I knew," Honaker said. "They had cameras set up all around and showed a lot of it live. My wife would tell me what we'd be doing the next day. She knew the shift schedule before I did and she would sometimes know my shift before I did. Some of it was ironic how quickly it was transmitted over public airwaves. We were in a little back world unaware of what was going on outside." 

Honaker described the Pentagon blast site as less hazardous than the World Trade Center. “New York was 10 times the level of aerosolized material. Our contamination was knee down,” he said.

Still, he may have some residual health effects. “My wife says I have ‘the Pentagon cough,’ ” Honaker acknowledged. “My allergies were there before but (they do) seem to be a bit worse since.” 

Berry said she's had no lingering health effects from her experience.

Pentagon restoration completed swiftly

In their careers in disaster recovery, Berry and Honaker have extensive experience with hurricanes. Responding to the Pentagon was very different. Honaker compares hurricane deployments to “very bad camping trips,” whereas the Pentagon work involved a crime scene indoors.

After spending 16 years with the disaster rescue team NMTF-1 and 25 years in search and rescue, Berry, now 54, is involved only in wilderness rescue — looking for lost hikers, hunters and climbers.

Honaker, now 63, is still active with VATF-2 and expect to be for another year or two. He considers the Pentagon response a highlight of his 18 years in the field.
"As a nation, it showed that we were ready and there. I am very proud of what everybody did —all the teams worked well together, all the government agencies played well together," Honaker said. "For anyone holding out hope for a miracle, at least knowing and getting confirmation (of what happened to a loved one) could bring some closure." 
Restoration of the iconic buildings impacted by the 9/11 attacks reveals the steep difference in magnitude of destruction: The Pentagon was rebuilt in less than a year. At the World Trade Center, just clearing all the debris took eight months.

Pentagon employees reoccupied the affected offices one month before the first anniversary of the event. The first new building in the private-sector World Trade Center complex is scheduled to open next fall, 12 years after the towers collapsed.   

A Pentagon Memorial opened on Sept. 11, 2008.

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