I didn’t know why the line wasn’t moving. I craned my neck over the firefighter in front of me, trying to identify the holdup. The long column of search dog handlers and rescue workers stretching down the bus’s main aisle would move forward a few steps then stop abruptly, causing a bumper-car effect for everyone still confined on the bus. Step. Stop. Bump. Repeat. What on earth was going on?
I dislike inaction in any form. That was part of the reason after I’d retired from teaching I’d wanted to become a search dog handler. But a disdain for inaction was only part of the equation.
I’ve been known to push limits. Have my entire life. Initiative and persistence—the broken-down-then-rebuilt-until-strong kind of persistence—are an integral part of my personal philosophy. I’m not a hard case; I just feel the world is never outside an individual’s power to change. To me, if you feel something is the right thing to do, there’s only one option: you commit to doing it. I was sixty-one years old in 1995, but ever since grade school when I’d taken to hauling my wiry mutt Toffee up into a shaky tree house to help me eat my PB&J sandwiches, I’d always wanted to train a dog to do something special. Thus, I was drawn to SAR. There are many types of canine SAR—cadaver search, water search, avalanche search, wilderness search—and each requires unique training. Disaster search is where the dog searches for live victims trapped in a structure collapse or crashed vehicle or landslide or any other event that might shield victims from the eyes of rescuers. Most important in my mind, in disaster search, my dog and I could potentially save a life—about as special a purpose as I could think of.
I had four boys already in college and was just starting a casual retirement with my husband, John, but it probably surprised no one when I shrugged it off and instead quite literally found a spot on the bus in the company of Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Los Angeles Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Task Force. They needed canine disaster search teams, and I had a well-trained Black Lab. So on the morning of April 21, 1995, while the rest of the shocked world mourned the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, I gathered up Murphy and boarded the shuttle with the first wave of disaster USAR workers.
It was taking us longer to get off the bus than the drive from our staging area at the Myriad Convention Center, where the FEMA USAR Task Force organized late the previous night. We knew the damage to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was extensive. The perpetrator, Timothy McVeigh, had detonated nearly five thousand pounds of homemade explosives, which lifted nine stories of the federal building into the sky and pancaked them down in a 460-ton avalanche, killing 168 innocent people. But as the bus had rolled by the front of the building this morning, the rubble hadn’t looked too bad. This would be my first major deployment with the now two-year-old Murphy, and the glimpse I caught of the site made me feel a little better. The search might even be easy.
I was confident in Murphy’s abilities. She’d charged through canine SAR certification required for deployment like the black fur-missile she was. I was even a little excited to see my high-octane dog in action—if I could just get off the bus!
Step. Stop. Bump.
I inch-wormed to the bus’s front and tried to see out. It looked like the firefighters ahead of me were captivated by something as soon as they exited. Finally, the path cleared and I made my way out the door. Step.
The front of the federal building had been a deception. The building’s rear—where the bomb had detonated—stared back at me. A massive gouge cut through the long side of the rectangular building like a hemorrhaging wound. Wires and cables and pipes spilled out the side of each room on every floor. The offices that once contained fourteen federal agencies were now a honeycomb of dark, dead caves.
I could only stare back with the horrified reverence usually reserved for soldiers on the battlefield—yes, one human could really do this to others. I’d seen ghastly deeds on the news before, but by then there’d always been a rebuke—justice or a good deed—to balance out the bad. But here amid the smoky destruction, there was no justice. There was no good. For the first time in my life, I felt only the chilly shadow of evil.
How could any good come from this?
No one offered an answer as our solemn procession
shuffled off the bus.
TWO DAYS LATER, I noticed the young man lingering at the edge of the newly erected fence around the federal building’s rubble pile but paid him no mind. I had to stay focused. Almost eleven hours of searching unforgiving debris, and the job was getting tough. Sweat and dust coagulated into a kind of pliable cement that covered my body. It made breathing laborious. It made thinking laborious. Only three days earlier I’d been on vacation with my husband in Palm Springs, and now I was walking through hell on earth.
Stay positive, I reminded myself. It was a mantra I would repeat throughout the entire search.
Murphy glanced back at me. She could sense the slightest change in my mood. There is debate about the extent of a dog’s emotional facilities, but it is commonly agreed that a dog can pick up any negative emotion from the handler and fixate on it. The constant search, which search dogs view as an enjoyable game, would suddenly become undesirable. A chore. The dog will worry about the handler and stop paying attention to her nose. The search will break down.
I tapped my remaining reserves of mental toughness and kept my emotions stable. My dog was counting on me. The families of 168 innocent souls were counting on us.
Still, I was on shaky ground—in every sense of the phrase. I was a civilian volunteer on the biggest rubble pile I’d ever seen. Up until this point, search and rescue with Murphy had been nothing more than a weekend endeavor, a way to occupy my time between horse rides. We were well beyond casual pastime now. That pungent and unmistakable scent filling my nose was death. Real death.
We finished our search and began the somber march off the rubble and down a narrow, fenced passage to the buses. That’s when I noticed the man again.
He’d been hovering around the edge of the fence for a while. Perhaps hours. But as the man saw me approaching, he began to deliberately walk my way.
As he neared, the man raised his arm and held something out to me.
Maybe a card, or flowers, I thought. I was wearing my FEMA USAR Task Force uniform and helmet, so people easily mistook me for a firefighter. They’d been bringing gifts for the first responders to the disaster site for days now.
It wasn’t flowers.
Shocked, I looked at the man’s face and saw something that will be forever engraved in my memory. I don’t remember his physical features; they were overshadowed by the complete devastation in the man’s eyes.
He was holding a photograph in his outstretched hand. The photo showed a young woman with raven-black hair and a bright smile. In a quavering voice, he asked, “Have you found her yet?” Almost four days after the bombing, the man was still searching for his young wife.
I felt my stomach enter free fall. I didn’t have the heart to explain that the overpressure from a bomb blast can literally turn organic tissue to mush. Or that the bomb had lifted and dropped nine stories of metal and concrete on anyone lucky enough to survive the blast. My dog could indicate with her body language where a deceased victim might be, but any chance of visual identification would be impossible.
I knew the man needed closure. Murphy might not be the answer to finding the remains of this man’s wife, but she sure as hell was part of the team that would.
I summoned what was left of my courage and adjusted my glasses. I placed a hand on the man’s shoulder and looked him directly in the eye. “We won’t leave until we do,” I said.
As I let Murphy lead me quietly away, I made a decision. Something good had to come from this disaster.
AND SOMETHING GOOD did emerge from the shadow of evil, but not until the winter of 1995, long after all the victims had been accounted for. It started with an idea.
Murphy had performed extremely well in her searches at Oklahoma City. I had seen what was possible with search dogs, and it wasn’t only searching for remains of the deceased. Dogs were faster than any artificial technology at finding live people buried in rubble. With enough trained dogs in enough places, they had the potential to put human lives back on the board when disaster struck.
But my research indicated there was a severe shortage of search dogs—fifteen at the time, only a tiny fraction of the number I estimated were needed. If another large-scale disaster hit the United States, live victims trapped in rubble could be left behind. How would it be if that man’s wife had survived the building collapse only to perish because search teams did not have the assets to find her fast enough? In my mind, that was unacceptable.
It would take a massive effort to overcome the search dog deficit. Canine disaster search training and certification would have to be revolutionized. At the time, the majority of search dog training was volunteer-run. Egos and politics were rampant, and time constraints often slowed the process to years. Five years for a trained dog was not uncommon.
A new, ahem, breed of dog handler would also need to be instituted—someone with disaster response instincts beyond what weekend warriors could provide. Someone with the mental fortitude to endure the shock of a major disaster and look a victim’s family in the eyes afterward.
Above all, the right dogs would need to be selected. I knew Murphy was special. I would need more like her. Dogs that could focus on a single scent amid the chaos of a disaster site, dogs that had the stamina of a professional athlete, the fearlessness of a soldier, the cunning intellect of an escape artist, and the compassion of a nurse. But top-bred dogs matching these characteristics could cost in the thousands of dollars, and for what I had in mind, they’d have to be free. Or damn close.
On the surface, my plan might’ve appeared impossible. I heard a number of doubtful assessments. But feasibility and popularity played little part in my decision to proceed. It was, after all, the right thing to do.
Only a few months after our return, I created the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF). The nonprofit was based on the notion that I could redefine canine disaster search teams in America. What the outside world did not hear was my unspoken goal: in my lifetime, 168 search dog teams would be trained—one for every victim of the Oklahoma City bombing.
With only my loyal Labrador and a tacit resolve as my guides, I began to lay out the blueprint for finding the dogs that would make history.