Remembering 9/11

Remembering 9/11

Veterinarian recalls experiences as an early first-responder to terrorist attack
Apr 01, 2011
National Report — She didn't know if she was going to come out alive.

The war spilled onto U.S. soil, the first since Pearl Harbor, recalls Marie McCabe, a veterinarian called in to assist just three days after terrorists drove jets into the side of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Nearly 10 years after the 2001 terrorist attacks, McCabe, a Veterinary Medical Assistance Team (VMAT) member, still has respiratory problems and a sympathetic nervous response triggered by construction. While she was one of many veterinarians who volunteered their time and service to help following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, it was a time in her life she will never forget.

And the 10-year anniversary is resurrecting many of those buried memories.

Joel Schmidt

"I was sitting on a swing with my 10-month-old son when I got the call." McCabe along with colleagues and technicians were readying for deployment. Just two days earlier, the faculty of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine piled into a small room with a tiny television to lay witness to an event that would trigger a decade-worth of disaster preparedness for the country from airline screening to the risks to our agricultural infrastructure and the threats of bioterrorism.

The event gave birth to the Department of Homeland Security and a renewed phase of risk mitigation and paranoia by the general public.

For McCabe, when the deployment call came in, she didn't question it.

"I felt like I had to go because I had to go for my country. I am not normally much like that to put myself in the face of danger. I honestly didn't know if I was going to come back out of it alive. I honestly didn't know. I felt like I had to go," she says.

She started on a nine-hour pilgrimage from Blacksburg, Va., to Manhattan.

"I was the only car on the highway heading in that direction. It was really kind of bizarre being on a highway going in that direction while everyone else was going the other way."

She cleared security checkpoints and arrived at La Guardia Airport in the middle of the night. The airport was secured with armed patrols brandishing machine guns. McCabe recalls the gravity of the event struck her then seeing an airport inside the United States surrounded by military.

She reported for duty following a tragedy that netted thousands of other first-responders and volunteers to care for the hundreds of search and rescue dogs on the scene. McCabe was made a shift leader to coordinate a group of volunteers. Training was next, and a grueling 16-hour shift schedule under what she describes as "incredible emotional stress."

Some of that stress, McCabe recalls, was fueled by the fear of the unknown and the other part focused on the often-grisly task of moving from search and rescue to search and recovery of the 2,823 victims.

"We were told to sleep with our uniform and boots on. Three nights during that two weeks we went on super high alert and we were instructed to sleep with our arms through our knapsack. Do you think we slept those nights?

The pile or Ground Zero, McCabe recalls, was this smoldering pile of steel and rubble that was described by scientists a year later as "wildly toxic." It burned for 69 days after the attack. Paper was everywhere following the collapse of an estimated 50,000 offices.

McCabe's volunteers, working in a MASH unit across from Manhattan Community College, were close enough to see it. She, on the other hand, was cleared to work in the red zone, which gave her a first-hand look at the pile in the early days of the attack.

"It was surreal. It was so big and so loud. (Television) could never get the magnitude of it. It was all around, above and behind you. It was a smell. I hope I never have to smell it again. It was a weird, acrid, stays-on-your-tongue kind of a combination of organic, chemical and electrical. It was just bizarre and a very distinct smell that was everywhere. I wondered what the dogs thought about that smell since their sense of smell is so much greater than all of ours."

There was no glass. There were no telephones or fax machines or computers They were all pulverized from the blast into a form of powder that covered everything.

The dogs mostly suffered from minor thermal burns on the pads of their feet. "I only had to sew up one laceration on a carpal pad. Mostly we were just doing prevention and cleaning them up," McCabe says.

The biggest problem for the dogs during 9/11 was the dehydration, she says. While the dogs worked 12-hour shifts, with many breaks in between, the veterinary teams would closely monitor the dogs regarding fluid status. Loading the dogs with subcutaneous fluids was not uncommon. Some of the animals showed symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea during the crisis. Some of those dogs had blood in their urine.

"In most of those cases, it was a stress response," she says.

For two weeks McCabe served as a first responder to 9/11. Her team saw 1,000 dogs cycle through the system. There were 300 dogs at a time from rescue teams from all over the world.

But no one could predict the emotional strain on handlers and dogs, McCabe adds. In fact, official estimates say that close to 622,000 New Yorkers suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

"Looking back, I could still see the plume of smoke going up. That's when I started crying... I had to pull over because that is when it hit me."