Ground Zero search dog, Indiana rescuer helped after 9/11 attacks

9/11 Terrorist Attacks: World Trade Center Tribute Lightens New York Skies

Two parallel beams of light will illuminate the sky to depict the fallen skyscrapers as part of the annual public art installation Tribute in Light.

USA TODAY

The dust covered everything, recalls Gary Hay.

It covered the ground 4-5 inches and turned Lower Manhattan into a gloomy gray landscape for weeks.

“It was almost like thinking you were walking on a film set on the moon or something,” recalls Hay, now 66 years old. “It was just the same color as far as I remember.”

For eight days in 2001, Hay helped brush this dust, clean the twisted metal of the twin towers, and search Ground Zero for survivors with his K-9, Freddy.

Its time of collapse was captured in a photo and remains in the IndyStar archives. Hay had never seen the photo before, but it was reminiscent of the way he wrapped his boots with duct tape, strapped a helmet onto his “gray” hair and reacted to his first disaster.

Every September, Hay said he was thinking of his Indiana Task Force 1 colleagues who responded that day in New York City. And about the first responders on the scene, like “Jackie” – a medical professional Hay said made it a point to check the team’s mental and emotional state. It’s a gesture that always happens to first responders, especially when they’re in the field.

This September 11th will be 20 years since the US was exposed to an attack that dispatched Task Force 1 to the site of the disaster. They came to the remains of the World Trade Center twin towers, which collapsed after terrorists hijacked two planes and flown them into the most notable buildings on the city skyline, killing about 2,750 people. Hijackers flew another airliner into the Pentagon that morning, leaving nearly 200 dead. Passengers aboard the fourth hijacked aircraft fell victim to the terrorists and crashed the jet into a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

Hay said he heard the attack on the radio while driving a tractor-trailer for his business on the road.

“I thought, ‘Gosh, we need to be deployed,'” he recalled at the time. “We have to be.”

About 50 miles from his home in South Bend, he noticed that his pager had died. Messages from anyone trying to reach him did not arrive.

He stopped at a post office where he got a phone call and confirmed that they were being used. His wife took the drive to meet him with Freddy. He and the yellow laboratory were then on their way to the troop’s biggest mission to date.

Your first task: clear up debris.

The groups cleared small areas to make room for excavation teams with heavy equipment. It may not have been the most herculean task, said one team captain, but it was important.

“They said, ‘We know this is not what you came here expecting, but the first step is to make it safe so no one else gets hurt,” said Hay. “And they jumped in straight away. No question. That is the job. Let’s pull it off. ”

The group split into two teams that worked 12-hour shifts for four days.

After they had cleared the search areas, the body was recovered.

Freddy was only certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a search dog to find survivors in collapsed buildings, not dead people.

You still used it.

The yellow lab put down three times – its signal when it found a dead body – but Hay said the crews took him to another area before learning if his K-9 had found a body.

“I felt like we went there and did our best. Unfortunately there was no one to save, ”he said. “You knew there were all these dead there, but it wasn’t like you saw them all in front of you.”

Hay described the rubble as “awful”. Rain made things worse. The metal mounds they sometimes stood on became slippery.

“But I think … most of us … were happy (we could help.),” He said. “So yeah, you saw the American spirit come out.”

Every morning when the task force descended to the remains of the towers, hundreds of people lined the streets to cheer them no matter what time they went down.

“You knew you had a lot of support,” he said.

Hay is the only remaining Indiana Task Force 1 dog handler who has responded to Ground Zero. Freddy died of age-related health problems five years after her return from New York.

Hay currently owns a black lab called Virgil and a yellow lab called Eddie. Both served as human remains detection dogs for FEMA.

In a pre-9/11 world, he remembers most of his missions when the elderly went missing or was on standby for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta after a pipe bomb exploded, killing one woman and injuring 100 others became.

Hay will never forget his first disaster.

“Something I remember,” he added. “So everyone took care of me – the civilian who never reacted to a disaster.”

Contact Sarah Nelson at sarah.nelson@indystar.com or 317-503-7514.