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WHEN America faced its darkest day in history 20 years ago, brave rookie rescue dog Atlas and his handler were the first to plunge into the carnage to find survivors at Ground Zero.
Heroes Atlas and Robert Schnelle, now 60, arrived 45 minutes before the first tower collapsed and stormed in without a second thought to evacuate frightened workers – and they didn’t leave for seven months.
Atlas and Robert Schnelle, now 60, arrived 45 minutes before the first tower collapsedPhoto credit: Facebook
Schnell and Atlas spent 3,000 hours at Ground ZeroPhoto credit: Facebook
Atlas was thrown at the crucial moment in his career as a police dogPhoto credit: Facebook
It was the start of a grueling seven-month, 12-hour shift for the brave couple, who worked on-site with thousands of other rescue workers until May 2002.
In total, Schnelle, who was a handler at the NYPD at the time, and Atlas spent 3,000 hours at Ground Zero.
The hero German Shepherd had just finished his training when the hijacked aircraft crashed into the towers on September 11, 2001.
Atlas was thrown at the crucial moment in his career as a police dog.
Schnell, from Long Island, New York, told The Sun Online, “Atlas was a very young dog who had just finished his training and I am still amazed at how he worked at Ground Zero in these conditions.
“Nobody could train or be prepared for what happened that day. I know that I and Atlas did our best and I’m proud of him and everything he did.
“The most difficult moment that haunts me to this day is that we haven’t found any survivors after the first day.”
After racing in and out of the building for 45 minutes to help bloody and injured workers, Schnell experienced the terrible moment when the first tower collapsed.
“When the first tower collapsed, I was able to get under a large NYPD police ambulance with a few other police officers to escape the wreckage of the tower collapse,” he said.
“I didn’t know if we would survive and I prayed for it. I was afraid I would never see my wife and children again.”
“As the smoke and dust cleared, I crawled out and tried to find my police vehicle since Atlas was still in. Eventually I found my vehicle and got Atlas out.”
I felt like we were being chased by a tornado that ran with him as Atlas went ahead and pulled me on the leash.
When the second tower collapsed, Schnell helped people to safety.
“I had Atlas with me and grabbed a news photographer who had an injured ankle and dragged him to safety and carried him to the water at the piers next to Battery Park,” he said.
“I felt like we were being chased by a tornado that ran with him as Atlas went ahead and pulled me on the leash.”
The horror of 9/11 wasn’t Schnell’s first experience of a terrorist attack – he worked tirelessly on the site of the World Trade Center bombing just seven years earlier, in 1993.
“I had been to other bomb attacks and building collapse scenes. I had seen other horrific scenes – but nothing on this scale,” he said.
HERO 9/11 DOGS
Atlas was one of 300 brave pups who risked life and limb on September 11, 2001 to find survivors in the rubble.
Hundreds of loyal, devoted, and hardworking four-legged heroes have been recognized over the years for bringing comfort and hope in one of the darkest moments in modern history.
The noble 9/11 canines have left a long-lasting legacy with their stories of courage and healing.
The NYPD German Shepherd Appollo was one of the first search and rescue dogs to arrive at the site of the devastation in the World Trade Center two decades ago.
At the age of nine, the pooch continued to spend long days searching for survivors through piles of rubble and cracked concrete.
German shepherd Trakr was the hero who discovered the last survivor of the attack on the World Trade Center.
Trakr’s owner, Canadian police officer James Symington, had seen the horror on television and drove the pooch to New York for 15 hours to help with the rescue effort.
Hero Cara and her handler Mike Forsythe, a technical manager at a parachute manufacturer, arrived at the World Trade Center on September 17, six days after the attacks.
Equipped with dishes and a camera, the Beauceron was dropped into the smoldering building and snaked in and out of the carnage, searching under desks and filing cabinets.
The English Springer Spaniel Morgan, an experienced search and rescue dog, was used for both September 11th and Hurricane Katrina four years later.
The hero’s caretaker, Katrene Johnson, said Morgan was not only vital in finding survivors, but also provided immense comfort to the exhausted rescue teams.
Brave Border Collie Sage was just two years old when she was called up with her carer, Diane Whetsel, to take on the somber task of searching for human remains at the Pentagon site.
The brilliant sage has been certified at the highest level recognized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency – a prestigious role that only 50 dogs in the United States hold.
Doberman Pinscher Sunny and her supervisor Shirley Hammond worked tirelessly for 11 days on the rubble of the World Trade Center.
Although Sunny wasn’t a corpse dog, he stepped in when needed.
US Army Veteran John Randall and his Rottweiler Gunner were dispatched to New York on September 17th.
Fortunately, Gunner had worked as a therapy dog and worked his magic at Ground Zero, which provided a much-needed morale boost to the dedicated workers.
“I never thought something like this could happen, even though I was present at the 1993 and 1995 World Trade Center bombings in Oklahoma City.”
Schnell retired from the NYPD in 2007 after 25 years of service.
And tragically, Atlas died of cancer at the age of eight.
“I have the feeling that 9/11 affected him physically, just like me. Unfortunately, it was too late when Atlas got sick to save him,” said Schnelle.
The 60-year-old, who now works at JFK Airport in New York, has been plagued by the psychological and physical effects of seven months at Ground Zero for years.
I feel very blessed to have survived this day – but I also have the guilt of the survivors.
“9/11 will always be a day I will never forget,” he said.
“I lost a lot of colleagues and close friends. I feel very blessed to have survived this day – but I also have the guilt of the survivors.
“I have and continue to lose many friends and colleagues due to 9/11 illnesses.
“I personally have my own health problems and am monitored annually by the World Trade Center Health Program, for which I am very grateful.
“I just resigned myself to the fact that one day my luck would run out because I was 40 on September 11th and only recently turned 60.”
The noble 9/11 canines have left a lasting legacy with their courageous storiesPhoto credit: Fema
Hundreds of loyal four-legged heroes searched for survivors and offered comfort to the workersPhoto credit: Fema
The brave puppies risked life and limb on September 11, 2001 to save peopleCredit: EPA