A Moving Tribute to NYPD’s K9 Corps
Written by Dawn Liss | September 11th, 2001 | Republished 2017
I wept. I couldn’t control myself as sadness engulfed me like a huge wave. I thought of all the victims of the horrible attacks, of all the mothers and fathers who no longer would enjoy the company of their children, of the loving and proud grandparents who’d never see their grandkids play at Little League or skip rope, and of the brothers and sisters who would never exchange hugs and kisses during the holidays.
And so, I wept, overcome with grief. Despite the big crowds of people bustling around me, I was completely oblivious of their comings and goings. It was as though I was all alone with my deep sorrow, unable to stop the warm tears that stained my cheeks.
I had been standing in the crowded concourse of Penn Station in front of a makeshift memorial of flowers and cards, a memorial to all the people killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when I spotted the sketch of the dog and it hit me with a fierce suddenness, a powerful blow to the stomach that left me barely able to catch my breath. There it was, amid the flowers and cards, a sketch of a sad-faced yellow Lab that symbolized the full emotional impact of the attacks. A tear rolled down his face and the poignant message beneath his picture spoke volumes about the courageous acts of K9s and their handlers in the aftermath of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks. “Remember all our Heroes,” was written above a line that read, “…to our K9s, THANKS.” And so I wept, being overcome with emotion in the crowded Penn Station concourse in New York City where the memorial is located.
I was at Penn Station, preparing to board an Acela train for Providence after spending two days in the city to do a story on the heroic actions of K9 officers and their dogs. Just the day before, I met Paul Gitlin, a handsome young police officer, for an interview at the Pierre Hotel where I was staying with my husband, Richard Liss. Being publisher of a pet magazine, I thought it would be wonderful to write a tribute to K9s who were pressed into service after the horrific attacks on 9/11.
The New York City Police Department and its officers were extremely accommodating about my visit. I’d personally like to extend my thanks to Det. Walter Burnes of the New York City Police Department’s Public Information Office, and his fellow officers, Dets. Kuchma and Diaz. They were all very helpful in arranging for my visit for an interview.
I arrived in the city around 9:30 in the morning and I first spoke with Sgt. Robert DellaIacono, who was stationed at the Brooklyn base. I had expected to interview him, but he was called away on an emergency narcotics bust and K9 officer Paul Gitlin was speedily recruited to take his place.
“Where are you staying?” Officer Gitlin asked.
“At the Pierre.”
“We’ll be right over.”
I waited in the hotel lobby. After a half an hour or so, a bellman told me there was a K9 policeman and his dog outside in a utility vehicle. In one of those coincidences that happen every so often, the hotel director of security overheard me tell the bellman, “I’ll just have to go outside and interview him there.”
“You can do it right in here, Miss,” said John DeRosa, director of security and former NYPD officer, who introduced himself to me.
“That’s wonderful,” I said. Thank you very much.
I went outside to meet Officer Gitlin, who was standing near the vehicle marked, “K9 Unit” on the side. He offered me his hand to shake. The dog, named Bandit, growled and was very excited, but Officer Gitlin said, “Not to worry. He’s okay.” He held the dog on a leash.
“Let’s take a walk in the park,” he said, motioning to Central Park, located right across the street from the Pierre. “Bandit has to relieve himself.”
We took a brief stroll through the park, which was populated with joggers, young lovers holding hands and people parked on benches reading the daily newspapers on this bright, sunny morning. We talked about the World Trade Center attacks and our love of animals. He insisted I call him by his first name.
“Paul,” I said. “Do you have animals at home?”
“I used to have a Lab and a Rottweiler. Both of them are dead now, but Bandit did get to know them and the three of them got along very well.” he said.
Paul told me he lives in Staten Island. He’s been on the force for 14 years, having joined when he was 20. He transferred to K9 duty four years ago. “I love it,” he said. “Bandit and I have developed a strong bond between us. I take him home every night. He is very work-oriented. He wakes me every morning at 5:30, raring to go. I feed him Eukanuba pet food, which has high nutritional value and contains the vitamins glucosamine and chrondrotin.
Asked how he got his name, Paul said, “Look at his face. It has a black mask.” And so it did.
When we entered the hotel, Mr. DeRosa directed us to a private corner of the lobby for my interview with Paul. Bandit sat at his side.
“What was it like for you on 9/11?” I asked. “Where were you at the time the first plane hit?”
“I was home when my father, Sol, called and told me a plane had crashed into one of the twin towers. We thought it was just an accident. I put on the television and when I saw another plane hit the second tower, I knew it was no accident, that it was a terrorist attack.
Paul immediately got his gear together and prepared to leave for the base in Brooklyn. He talked with the commander who informed him he’d be put on stand-by, just in case another attack took place elsewhere.
While driving over the Verrazanno Bridge, he saw heavy plumes of smoke rising from the attack site. “I was thinking that my relatives and friends could be inside the buildings,” he said. “I was really worried about that and I was anxious to report to the base and get to work.
It took him about an hour to reach the Brooklyn base. Bandit sat there, in the back, ever alert, almost sensing something bad had happened.
It wasn’t until the following day that Paul and Bandit were pressed into service. The innards of the buildings were searching hot and fires continued to burn. Temperatures rose to 13,000 to 15,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Some dogs wore booties to prevent from getting their paws burned. It would take months before all the fires were put out. It turned out to be the longest continuing fire in New York City’s history.
“I was shocked that something of this magnitude could happen in America. It seemed more like a scene out of a movie than reality,” he recalled. “It was so huge. The World Trade Center area is four blocks long and dour blocks wide. It covers 16 acres. It was a total mess.”
The scene was sheer bedlam as teams of policemen and firefighters rushed inside buildings in attempts to rescue people trapped inside. Soot and dust covered their clothes, their faces and hair. The buildings had collapsed, making rescue efforts even more dangerous.
“We worked 15 to 16 hours a day and it was 14 to 16 days straight before we even got time off,” Paul remembered. “We’d start work at 6 a.m. and work til 8 p.m., before returning to the base where we’d wash the dogs and then go home to shower and go to bed. Then it was back at the site the next day, working hard to find survivors. We were looking for as many people as possible in a quick and safe way. We only had one thing in mind: to rescue survivors.”
Bandit located a number of cadavers inside the collapsed structures.
Paul said he’d developed a deep concern for Bandit’s and his own safety after several days of the grim undertaking. Many police officers and firefighters were being reported killed during the rescue missions. For Paul Gitlin, once inside a building he would find a route for Bandit to take and command the dog to “seek.” Bandit would immediately start digging for potential survivors.
The toll on the rescue teams was formidable. Every day, there were reports of more bodies being discovered and litters carrying a cadaver became commonplace on the evening television news shows.
A number of K9 dogs perished during the rescue operations. There have been no official figures on their exact numbers, but many dogs died in their heroic efforts to find a living, breathing human being.
“Bandit did a great job,” Paul said, proudly. “I love him. He’s always there for me. I trust him with my life.”
Paul’s stories about the rescue efforts were incredible. I could just picture him and Bandit inside those smoldering buildings, putting their own lives at great risk to rescue survivors. I was filled with pride as he described the heroism displayed by officers and their dogs. I was also thinking about how New Yorkers, in particular, regrouped under the urgings of New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Images of Giuliani exhorting residents to hang in there, to go about their business as usual, filled me with a warm glow. I’ll never forget that. New Yorkers responded very positively and admirably under the most trying times.
I must confess that I get easily emotional about tragic events. I come from a family where we all vented out feelings, no matter if we disagreed with on another, we always let it all hang out, so to speak. I believe each of us has one voice and we should use it. That’s the way I’ve always approached life. Maybe it’s not a good thing, that I should learn to cover up my feelings at times, but I can’t, it wouldn’t be me.
The next day, as I prepared to depart the city, I was filled with a sense of wonderment, that this great city, perhaps the greatest city in the world, had come out of this dark abyss and would not let terrorists take over their lives. Standing there, in the huge concourse of Penn Station, I noticed a knot of people near the makeshift memorial and I sauntered over to study it. But when I looked down at the memorial and saw the sorrowful dace of the dog in the sketch, I couldn’t stop the tears that welled up in my eyes and rolled down my face. An elderly woman standing nearby said, “That picture really affects me every time I look at it.” When I turned to study her, I saw tears roll down her cheeks. Without thinking, I immediately hugged her tightly.
Photo right - Officer Paul Gitlin with Bandit
Dawn Liss with NYPD (Above)