On Sept. 12, 2001, Canine Search Specialist Sheila McKee rode by bus into Manhattan for the first time.
As they approached, she recalled she could see the smoke rising from the scene.
“We train a lot, but I don’t think you can ever train or be prepared for a disaster of that magnitude,” said the Highland resident. “I don’t think that anybody who worked that particular tragedy was ready for what we experienced. There is a bit of naiveté.”
McKee and her husband, David Graves, then an engineer with the Redlands Fire Department, joined a group of canine handlers as part of Riverside Urban Search and Rescue Task Force Six sent to Ground Zero to help with the search for survivors following the attacks.
She and Guinness, her yellow Labrador retriever, were on the pile for much of 10 days, she said. They found no survivors, she said.
“It took a moment to realize even the computers, the chairs, even the desks were gone,” she said.
Guinness is now one of only 12 Sept. 11 search dogs who are still living. He’s losing his vision and is a bit unsteady on the hardwood floors at the McKee/Graves home.
She has not been back to New York since, but thinks she may soon be ready to return. Looking back, she said her strongest memory is that of New York’s residents.
“We were in these huge buses and the caravan a mile long,” she said. “We had all these teams and equipment – we carry upwards of 70,000 pounds of equipment for us – and there’s 80 personnel. As we’re coming in, the streets were lined with people. They could see us coming and they all stood on the street and they waved at us and they clapped. I remember being terribly emotional because we were at that moment overwhelmed and connecting with these people.”