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The Little Heroes of 9/11 That You Probably Don’t Know



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One of the world’s worst tragedies happened on September 11, 2001, when nearly 3,000 people died from a terrorist attack in the World Trade Center, New York City. No one could ever forget the mass destruction and the aftermath it caused.


But we shall also remember that out of 10,000 emergency rescues, 300 Search and Rescue (SAR) dogs deployed in ground zero worked tirelessly in search of signs of life or human remains buried from thick layers of debris. There were only 100 dogs trained to handle large scale operations and within the harsh sites. Yet the other dogs carried on with the task despite how physically and emotionally taxing it was for them.

These dogs pushed their boundaries beyond anything they had experienced and devoted themselves to the humans who needed help. As Brandy Arnold wrote from Dogington Post, “From search and rescue dogs to comfort dogs to bomb detection dogs, these canines’ stories of courage, healing, and long-lasting legacy must never be forgotten.”

Now it’s time for us to honor the four-legged heroes of 9/11.


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(Billy Knight)

1. Bretagne

Bretagne’s mission was to rescue possible survivors and recover the remains. She was 2 years old when her owner, Denise Corliss, heard the news about the attacks in the Twin Tower. Denise was a volunteer firefighter in the Cy-Fair Fire Department and she had been training Bretagne for search and rescue operations. So they didn’t hesitate and rushed to the ground zero to help. 

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Bretagne and Denise spent ten days and worked 12-hour long on the site. His greatest contribution was to represent the SAR dogs in 9/11. Because of all the 300 canines, he was the one that remained last. Years passed after the tragedy and Bretagne didn’t stop lending her paws. She took part in the rescue missions when Hurricane Katrina, Rita, and Ivan happened. 

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Bretagne retired by the time she was 9 years old. The senior dog became the ambassador for the Cy-Fair Fire Department. She also visited various elementary schools to offer assistance for kids. Bretagne’s life was filled with adventures until her body decided to lay rest on June 7, 2016, after she reached 17 years old. 

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(The New York Times)

Before Bretagne crossed over the rainbow bridge, she first marched across the Texas Task Force 1 and Cy-Fair Fire Volunteer Department, who stood straight at both of her sides. The men saluted the hero dog as she headed inside the Fairfield Animal Hospital. “This was a very small way for us to pay tribute to a dog who truly has been a hero,” the captain of the Fire Department stated. The men once again saluted and draped her resting body with an American Flag. 

2. Riley

Another golden retriever named Riley specialized in finding breathing persons. And despite his limited skills, he was able to recover numerous bodies of firefighters in the ground zero. However, the desperation to find an alive human being was seen on Riley.

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(Wikipedia Commons)

According to his owner, Chris Selfridge, “Riley knew the people he continued to find were dead. He was never a formally trained cadaver dog. His job was to find the still living. I tried my best to tell Riley he was doing his job. He had no way to know that when firefighters and police officers came over to hug him, and for a split second you can see them crack a smile—that Riley was succeeding at doing an altogether different job. He provided comfort. Or maybe he did know.”

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The photo of Riley being transported through the ruins of the World Trade Center became the most iconic K9 photo during the 9/11 rescue mission. His photo resurfaced the headlines once again when he passed away at the age of 13 on February 26, 2010.

3. Appollo

Appollo was the first dog to arrive at ground zero. In fact, people had already spotted the german shepherd sniffing around the area 15 minutes after the attack. He was a K9 from the New York Police Department and a graduate from NYPD Canine Special Operations. Appollo was so courageous that he almost faced his death during the mission.

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A terrifying moment happened when Appollo got caught in between the falling debris and raging flames. But before the incident, he miraculously fell into a pool of water that drenched him all over. With his damp body, Appollo was able to survive the fire and escape his imminent death. Peter Davis, his handler, came running towards the dog and brushed the debris off him. But Appollo stood up as if nothing happened, then started working again. Everyone was so fascinated with his reaction and the amount of dedication he had for his job.

4. Trakr

A german shepherd named Trakr and his Canadian police officer handler, James Symington, made a long drive from Canada to New York without permission from their department. But as soon as they reached the ground zero, Trakr made a remarkable contribution to the operation.

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Trakr was the dog who found the last survivor on 9/11. Around six in the morning, he detected a scent in the South Tower area. It was Genelle Guzman-McMillan, who was trapped for 27 hours underneath the concrete and 30 feet layers of debris. The dog barked nonstop and quickly alerted the rescuers of her location. But then after the successful rescue, Trakr faced another problem.

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It was the 14th of September 2001, when Trakr suddenly passed out. The vet in the ground zero found that it was due to chemical and smoke inhalation, exhaustion, and burns. After his treatment, he returned to his home in Canada. Because of his contribution to the rescue operation, Time magazine awarded Trakr as one of history’s most heroic animals. James and Trakr were also honored with an “Extraordinary Service to Humanity Award.”

More interesting facts ahead!

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Trakr died at the age of 14 because of a disease that he developed from the 9/11 rescue mission. But before his death, James made an essay about his dog and submitted it to a contest called ‘Best Friends Again’. The program was created by one of the world’s largest biotech companies whose goal was to find the world’s most “clone-worthy” dog. Trakr was chosen out of hundreds of dogs and his DNA was sent to South Korea. He was the first-ever dog that was cloned. His five clones were born in June 2009, two months after his death. Trakr’s clones named Solace, Prodigy, Déjà vu, Trustt, and Valor were now trained as SAR dogs by James and continued Trakr’s legacy.

5. Sirius

Sirius was the only dog that met a tragic fate on the day of the attack. He was a K9 for detecting explosives and firearms. His handler, David Lim, went down the basement with Sirius at the South Tower. Suddenly, David felt the ground tremble—the North Tower got attacked. As an officer, his first instinct was to help the possible injured civilians at the neighboring building.

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David secured Sirius inside his kennel because he thought that his buddy would be safe. The Labrador’s ears flopped down and stared at David with round eyes. “I’ll be back for you.” He whispered to Sirius before he dashed off to the North Tower. The dog watched his figure disappear from the room, but David had no idea that it was their last moment together.

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(New York Post)

David was rescuing the injured civilians in the North Tower when the whole building abruptly collapsed. Luckily, he survived, but they were buried on the fourth floor of the tower and took five hours before they got rescued. The first thing that came to David’s mind was Sirius but it was too late now. Because while he got trapped in the North Tower, the South Tower had fallen. Unfortunately, his buddy was not as lucky as him. 

6. Ricky and Thunder

Ricky or also known as “the smallest dog at ground zero.” He was a two-year-old rat terrier measuring only 17 inches. He may not be as intimidating as his fellow SAR dogs like german shepherd, labrador, or rottweilers, but Ricky had his own advantage. His tiny limbs could squeeze into narrow spaces that other dogs and humans couldn’t! He was also skilled in climbing aluminum ladders and running on intricate patterns. 

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Ricky met his perfect partner at ground zero, and his name was Thunder, a 5-year-old golden retriever. Since the terrier could fit in the small areas, he did most of the searching. Then Thunder as a more experienced and certified advanced level SAR dog, he would be the one to confirm Ricky’s findings. When Thunder laid down on the found spot, that was the signal for rescuers to start their digging. 

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Ricky and Thunder proved that they were a perfect tandem because the rescuers already lost count on how many bodies the duo retrieved at the site. Ricky alone worked relentlessly for ten days. “I saw them take a policeman and a firefighter out from areas that we had just searched. I don’t know how many people were in the stairwell. There were lots of people in there.” reported Ms. Linker, a worker from Northwest Disaster Search Dog.

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