The Rescuer’s Tale


Featuring the unabridged transcript and audio.

David Vitalli
Age: 32
Hometown: Newburgh
Occupation: Senior vice president of Vortek, a security business in Newburgh
Along with Jimmy, his search and rescue German shepherd dog, searched for survivors at Ground Zero.

This all started about 10 to 10 in the morning on September 11. As the phone starts ringing off the hook, I had to turn on the TV as the first tower was hit. I, as a lot of people, though, it was just an FAA screw-up. Apparently it wasn’t. So after sitting watching this on TV thinking, “Boy, the FAA screwed this one up, and you know, it’s a shame about what happened,” then the second tower gets hit.

This time we knew that it was definitely a terrorist attack. As the day progressed, since we do work with New York, we got in contact with New York City Emergency Management, or they got in contact with us, one of the two. So we were ready to get going, get everything down there, try to find survivors.

Since we do work with a lot of canines, we decided to bring along one of our top dogs, which was Jimmy. So they load up, we get everything loaded up. We’re waiting to get a green light to get down into the city.

So we waited, as I said, to get the green light as we load up the trucks. And we get one rescue Hummer ready to get all the supplies that would be needed to stay down there for a few days or for however long it was gonna take.

It was mid-evening when we finally get a green light. We load up the dog, load everything up, with a lot of ice, thinking that we would be able to find people missing limbs and use the canines to find whichever limb would’ve been there at the time. Nobody was expecting anything of what it was, how it turned out.

I head down, hit the Tappan Zee Bridge. As we’re coming through the Tappan Zee, there’s a lot of tension. There’s nothing on the road. There was absolutely nothing on the road whatsoever, heading south – a lot heading north, not much heading south at all.
So it was pretty much an open road the whole way down. And you’re wondering and you’re feeling what this is gonna be.

You know, you’re feeling that you’re gonna be able to do something. You’re gonna find survivors, like we’ve done in the past numerous times.

So you cross the Tappan Zee Bridge, you pass the last toll, getting over to Harlem River Drive, and you could smell it. You could smell everything burning, and a smell you’ll never forget.

The dog, Jimmy, starts alerting with nose in the air, circling around in his kennel as we’re driving down.

Once we get down to that point, we couldn’t take the West Side Highway down because of the amount of debris that was left there when the second tower fell.

We take the Harlem River and we pull up to the site. Trying to get through was a nightmare between the smoke – all of midtown Manhattan was covered with just debris – dust, smoke from the fires that were burning.

The only thing that was on the roads were emergency vehicles once you passed the first checkpoint. And nobody knowing what to do, the way things were going. You know, nobody was expecting this.

So we get down. They’ve got the whole grid of Manhattan, all the electric shut off. You’re driving down in total darkness with, you know, you have your own lights on, you’ve got all your strobes and sirens going as you’re on your way down, and that’s literally what you’re seeing through all of midtown Manhattan and heading down south.

So now you’re trying to fight your way up into getting to the scene, with thousands, thousands of people that were still around. Well, I shouldn’t say thousands. Hundreds of people that were there – FDNY and NYPD and special services and etcetera and Rescue.

And you could smell the death in the air. You can taste it, you can taste the debris through your lungs with every breath that you took.

The smell would be considered if you take a fireplace or a wood-burning stove that’s been burning. And you smell that ash and throw a steak of the middle of it and just let it sit there and cook.

And the debris from the chemicals and everything that was in the building that you could find. It was like going into hell.

It’s dark, it’s dark. You’re in total darkness. The only thing you could see is from what your lights are showing through. You’ve got on all your off-road lights and rescue lights just trying to see through – literally – through the smoke as you’re going down. Because you gotta keep the windows somewhat closed because you don’t want to mess up the dog’s senses that soon and shock him with everything that’s going on.

So you finally get up to it, and you just see the looks on everybody’s faces. Mostly it was the fire department.

They were there. They were down there when it came down.

You could see the tired and the frustration and the anger on everyone’s faces. It was like watching a bunch of just bodies walking around zombie stage because nobody could believe that it was just so much that had to be done.

And you really don’t realize the magnitude of it until you actually saw it. You pull up as close as you can. You try. You gotta keep the road somewhat clear. There was so much debris on the road and such that there was no way for Rescue and EMS to get the regular buses in, get the regular ambulances in. So we were using, we brought the Hummer up as close as we possibly could for that reason.

If we did find a survivor, if we found remains that, you know – we can jump in the truck and get them where we had to go with that. So as you’re pulling up to the site, as you’re running over everything in the road and you’re thinking it’s debris and it’s actually body parts, you’re thinking that it’s hoses from trucks, which some of it was.

A lot of it was, you know, but you’re not realizing when you’re running over things and they’re large pieces of, you know. You think they’re large pieces of the buildings or etcetera.

And then you park and you get out of the vehicle and you realize that you’re stepping on debris and that you parked on somebody’s remains because they were everywhere.
The first night, one of the first things that was told to us is, watch out, keep heads up because of falling bodies that were on top of the buildings from the buildings that were around the area.

You get out of the vehicle, you think you’re on a movie set. That was the easiest way to describe it. You feel like you’re watching this on TV. It doesn’t feel real, it doesn’t look real, it’s impossible for this to be, to believe what you’re seeing.

So at that point, you get out of the vehicle. It was so bad, we couldn’t bring the canine, we couldn’t bring Jimmy out because of the smoke – the smoke and the debris, the ash that was in the air.

You’re talking three-foot of debris that was on the ground, and from the FDNY trying to get the fires out, which was completely a losing battle at this point. There was just fires burning everywhere, from cars being on fire to all of the buildings that were in the surrounding area were on fire.

The debris from the plane, when the plane hit, ripped holes through adjacent buildings.
That just started fires in all those buildings. And you didn’t know where to start.

You get out of the truck, you’re putting on your gear and you’re looking up, and you don’t realize what to do. You’re lost. Everybody there had the same look and feel. No one knew what to do.

The canine was, Jimmy was just pacing and pacing, and we couldn’t bring him out ’til later, should I say, early the next morning. So what our main concern is, we loaded up with ice. We had all our gear to get everything, and we just started searching the outer part of the perimeter – you could call it a debris pile – which was another losing battle.

Because you don’t know where to look. Now at this time, since we geared to go down there, we had our respirators, everything we needed. So me and the one cop, we looked at each other. We ran up the pile ’cause we thought we found someone, and needless to say it was another fire burning underneath us.

So we went to get back down, and because of everything – he was breathing – and the stress and everything, he passed out as we were coming down the pile.
So I had to grab him up, scoop him up, take off my mask, put that on him to get him out of there.

There was so many people going and doing so many different things, you didn’t know where to start. So we got him out of there. We got him loaded up.

We finally get the canine out, we finally get Jimmy out and ready to work, I’d say it’s about 2 in the morning.

When we first brought him down there, we got him out of the vehicle so at least he can get used to it. But everything was so hot and there were so many fires, and the steel was cooked. I mean everything was cooked and bent.

And again, as you’re walking through things and you’re trying to get up to the piles, you have all your gear on, you’ve got your mask on, you change your filters. And you bring the dog out at first, as I said, for him to get used to it.

You try to bring him out of the area at first and bring him into it slowly, but there was no reason to because of the scent and the smells that were everywhere.

You didn’t know where to start. You didn’t know where to bring him. You didn’t know what to let him hit on.

Only thing you wanted to do was to find somebody alive, which was, everybody knows, not the case.

So now we’re talking Wednesday morning. Wednesday morning we’re in the pile, we’re looking. You’re hooked to your dog and you’re trying to make sure nothing happens to him. In the interim, you don’t care what happens to you.

You’re looking, you’re pulling steel, you’re pulling debris, you’re moving anything to try to find any parts. It was really just chaos I’d say until Thursday morning or Thursday afternoon.

We brought Jimmy back up Wednesday morning to give him a break, to get him out of there to get him checked, get him back to the kennel and get more supplies.

When we first got down there and realized that, OK, we dropped off everything that we could. We left the ice there, we reported in, got everything done, shot back out.

We shoot back down Wednesday morning, about 10 a.m. I’d say, enough to get him up here, get him fed, etcetera, give him a break, change uniforms, get more supplies of stuff that you didn’t think you would need.

You would think your natural stuff would be bringing a couple pairs of boots and a couple of uniforms, thinking that’s going to get you through, which was definitely not the case.

The steel was so hot in some points, we would bring the dog up to see if he could get a hit on anything. Anything that we thought that was a hit, we’d go, we’d crate the dog.

We’d run back to where it was. Now you’re climbing a debris field. The steel was melting your uniforms, your boots to your feet.

The dog’s feet, they were getting very cut and they were starting to blister. That’s why you try to keep the dog as far down as you possibly can.

Everything was burning so hot. The average fire that was burning they told me was 2,000, 3,000 degrees.

You’re trying to keep the dog out of it, but he wants to go into it because he wants to look for survivors.

He’s covered with everything that you could think of. You’re covered with everything you could think of. You’re cutting yourself out of torsos with your boot knife that you have on so you could keep walking in, trying to find survivors. That turned out to be common practice for the first few days.

As you’re walking through the debris, if you’re looking for something or if you think one of the dogs or one of the rescuers heard something, you stop everything and you just start digging.

As you’re climbing or you’re going past the bucket brigades that are going on. You can’t tell what’s part of a body and what isn’t because it’s so covered. The only way you finally figured out what it was is when your foot went through it.

So literally you would be in somebody’s remains and not realize what was happening because you knew there was nothing you could do for that person, but you were hoping that you would be able to do something for someone that could’ve, that you know, we thought was trapped at the time.

We’d bring the dog back and crate him back up to get him some rest. You go out and you do whatever you can. You’re starting with bucket brigades. The bucket brigades were a great idea. You know, it was good to try to work.

But there was so much debris and there was so much of everything that was all over the place. You didn’t realize the devastation really until mid-Thursday, because you’re working and not sleeping. The last thing on your mind is sleeping.

You’ve got a lot volunteers, lot of volunteers that were trying to get into the scene and trying to do everything that they can. The Red Cross is there, the vets are coming in. Anybody who wanted to volunteer for the first day or so, they were letting in.

They told us at the end that there was, I think, 100 to 150 canines that were working, yeah.They’d put them on shifts, on 12 and 12 off, when FEMA finally came in. But a lot of us didn’t bother reporting to FEMA ’cause it was taking too much time. It was so confusing as to what had to be done, you just, you just keep working. I mean, your shift was over, they were taking us out one end, and we were just coming into the other side and hitting the other part of the debris field.

Battery Park was gone. What was coming down, what was still falling. Because they keep letting you know that, every time a siren went off, you’re supposed to run.

You don’t have a radio yet because everybody is running in 12 different directions trying to get 12 different things done.

So you’re in there, you don’t have a radio, and you’re just listening for sirens. It’s run, or for somebody to grab you and pull you out of the holes, anything that was open.

Anything that was high enough that we could try to bring the canines up to without really putting them into danger. There was a lot of times that the dogs, their lives were in danger numerous, numerous times.

We heard that the one died, one was killed there. But they had a job to do same as everybody else that was there.

They knew their job. We knew our job. We went and you dived down any hole that you could see.

And then a company, I think from Canada, brought us down booties. That was a big thing for the dogs. Everyone wanted booties.

And it was a very nice gesture, but the sad part of it was that you couldn’t use them because of the steel and debris and everything was wet with the amount of gallons they were putting onto the site. So a lot of times, you’d see the dogs slipping, and the handlers grabbing the dogs, you know, to try to hold onto them, ’cause as I said, we’re all tethered together, we’re all on our own leads.

There’s a lot of times we’d try to take the canines off the lead to give them more space, but it was just, it was too much.

So what a lot of us were doing, is we were taking the booties off, and we were giving them up for DNA testing because you didn’t know what was on them. You know that might’ve been the only way somebody could’ve been identified.

A lot of people were doing that with their uniforms. I did that with my uniforms, my boots. I left one time in scrubs because I was just covered in so much of blood and debris and just things that you didn’t know what it was on you.

And you didn’t know, you didn’t realize how bad it was until that Thursday because you’re just finding pieces. You’re finding 300, 600 pieces, 900 pieces a shift per person.

You think you’re moving a piece of debris, you think you’re moving something, and you find out that it’s part of somebody. You pull the dog out to try to give him a break, and he’s worried about you, you’re worried about him.

You’re in a Catch 22 situation ’cause if you leave the pile, you leave the debris field, you’re worried about, you’re not doing it. You feel like you should be there.

Days just went on and on where nights were days, days were nights. You didn’t know. You couldn’t tell. And then there were people that were down there that were looking for their loved ones that were in the buildings.

You try to get the dog – or I tried to and I know a lot of the other guys who were working canine – we tried to get the dogs out of that area, to try to get them away from that smell a little bit. You could see it was definitely taking a toll on them ’cause they don’t have on respirators. There’s nothing they could do.

And you’re seeing them, and they’re sticking, they’re pulling their nose up and you hear them starting to gag, and you take the dog and you give them O2 or you get an asthma pump or something from one of the vets.

Numerous times, I had to carry him out because of danger or from him collapsing because days just turned into more days and more days.

The vets that were in the area were great. There was a lot of vets walking around. One time I brought Jimmy out of the one part of the section, right by Church Street, and I had Jimmy over me, and I was flooded. You know, they come running, running. And they wanted to take care of the dog to make sure the dog’s hydrated.

I think we tried to take better care of them than we did ourselves. It was definitely – it was a Thursday? I don’t know if it was Wednesday or Thursday – we were parked, and I was down part of a hole hanging upside down in my rig. And the sirens went off, and we couldn’t hear them, I couldn’t hear them. And I felt somebody grab my lead line, grab my lifeline and yoked me out of my rig, my boot and my helmet. And I turned, and everybody’s running.

And part of – I think it was Building 5 – and it was shooting the blast at us. And mine and one of my partners that was with me, our main concern was get Jimmy in the truck and get him covered. So we took our Kevlar and we threw it over the kennel because it’s shooting through the truck onto us. So we throw the truck in reverse and we came back by Building 7.

And there was a team working in the bottom of 7, and two detectives standing there that didn’t know what to do. They’re just standing, looking at the pile. They’re not realizing that they’re watching the other buildings starting to bow with shaking and they froze.

So me and my partner, we grabbed them, we threw them in the truck. We grabbed the other team. We used a rescue truck to block the debris. We took what was left of my lead line, threw it around the truck. And we had 16 of us in the rescue truck. We jumped a debris pile and landed on top of a Ford Taurus and drove off the car.

Yeah, yeah. I’ve got my permanent dent in my head from that day of getting hit with debris. So, yeah, it was quite an experience. It was just never ending. It never would stop.

You know you’d try, you’d bring the dog out, you know he’s tired, you know you’re tired, and you just keep going.

There was a lot – well, everybody was down there looking for their loved ones. Everybody was down there worried about, you know, if they found anything. You know, you’re hearing stories. They pulled seven over by another part of the pile. They pulled seven out alive, and you don’t know what’s true, you don’t know what’s false. You don’t know. You don’t know.

The people that were looking for survivors, they’re holding up pictures, and they’re coming up to you, “Did you see, did you see, she had on this bracelet,” or “She wore this anklet.”

Or they’re showing you pictures of people, of their family. And you don’t know what to tell them because you don’t know.

People were coping with it a lot of different ways. Some people brought their kids as close as they could. There was more kids there than I thought I would see there. But I guess a lot of them, the parents just wanted to get to the site.

Everybody’s made up photocopies of the pictures, and the only thing you could do is just take them.

You’ll do your best, you’ll look, you’ll try to, you know. You can’t go up to these people and say, “Go home.” You don’t want to tell somebody that.

“How’s it going? How’s it going?”

“It’s going, we’re working, we’re doing the best we can.”

And you’re coming out and you try to wash yourself off before you leave, before you come out of the area. I tried to brush off Jimmy, for you didn’t realize … looking at his feet, you don’t know what he stepped in.

And you’re covered with debris and blood and everything. You’re just covered. And you don’t want to go out where these people or somebody’s out there looking for their father or their wife. You don’t want them to see this.

They’re going to suffer. They suffered enough then, and they’re still suffering now over everything.

Everybody was very appreciative for what you were trying to do. You might have felt like you weren’t able to do anything because you want the one alive. You wanna’ help, you wanna’ send somebody home, and you can’t. Because there was nothing that could be done.

What do you tell a 10-year-old kid who’s sitting there, or a 6-year-old child who’s saying, “Are you in there looking for my daddy?” or “My daddy was with this engine number with FDNY.”

What do you say?

What can you say? They were very appreciative to the dogs. They all wanted to pet him and hold him. You let them do whatever they want to do.

They were all coming over. Everybody brought water over. I was using my respirator, my face mask. We were just pouring the water in there and letting the dogs drink out of that.
It was wasting the filters, but at this point you really don’t care, you know. The dogs were getting very well taken care of.

It’s kind of amusing now that they made sure the dog got cold water and you had lukewarm. But what are you gonna do? He was more important than any of the jobs we were doing anyways. And this just went on.

We kept going back for over three weeks. You’re tired, you’re burnt out, and you’re down there and everybody’s all charged up looking and trying to find everything with the dump trucks.

When dump trucks were getting stuck, FDNY Rescue, rescuers, FDNY, NYPD, volunteers were going over and they’re throwing these trucks, trying to get them out of the debris fields just to get them out of there.

Then you decide to come home, and you don’t want to. You don’t want to leave. But you know you have to. You need a break.

But you feel like you failed, so you drive all the back up, you try to tune everything out for a couple of hours. But what’s the first thing everybody does when they come to the house – turn on the TV.

People are worried about you, your family’s worried about you. And you come up, you show them that you’re OK, you go to lie down, you turn on the TV, you get frustrated, you’re back in the truck and you go back again.

You’re supposed to be working 8 or 12’s, but you’re working 24, 32, 36 hours straight. You don’t even realize it. You don’t realize what you’re doing at the time. You don’t care.
Jimmy started to get sick after a while. After 14 days, 10 to 14 days, but you didn’t want to believe it. You didn’t want to think that you found no one, you didn’t want to think that what you did was a waste, so you keep going. And you go again, and you go again.

Jimmy wants to go. You see your partner, you see your canine having problems breathing. You see him not acting right. You see him, and you’re carrying him up into the vehicles. You know he’s getting tired. Stil,l he doesn’t want to stop. So you go again. You come back up, you go again. Until it’s finally to the point where Jimmy gave out. And, you know, then it was time for … and then you still don’t want to give up and you go down alone.

Then you try to do other things. You make mistakes because you end up going to hospitals or you’re going to walls where everybody has the pictures up hoping that you’re gonna see somebody, something that you recognize, something that you realize.

A lot of people don’t realize how hot that burns, the temperature and how long that burns, so any sort of jewelry, gold – you’re not going to find anything. Only thing that you were able to find were pieces of the bodies that were blown apart.

Then you’d find something. That was really about it.

Jimmy was getting bad. Jimmy was getting worse after two and a half weeks, three weeks. But he saw you in uniform and he knew what you were doing, and he’d sit there and bark.

So you’d bring him, then you’d give him a break. Then you still go down.

So now, Jimmy just goes to the vet’s, does everything that has to be done and he just keeps getting worse

Jimmy ended up dying end of May on a Friday. I got the call at my house that Jimmy died. His heart gave out.

Jimmy was in service for eight years, so he was about 10, and he passed. He died. It’s like losing a son, a member of the family. It’s your partner, it’s your best friend. It’s somebody that would be there always and now isn’t. It’s hard to swallow. Definitely hard to swallow. Yeah, he was definitely a good boy. He was definitely a good boy.

I think he’d still be alive today if we hadn’t gone down. Some people say that it had nothing to do with it. Not from a vet’s standpoint, of course, just people who don’t know. I know. I know how he was breathing. I know how he acted. I know how I feel, so yeah.
I’m having some respiratory problems myself. But you don’t want to go to the doctor, don’t want to know. Would you want to know? There’s nothing you could do about it, so you just grin and bear it.

I’d do it again in a heartbeat. God forbid, God forbid there’s ever anything like this again, I’ll be there. I’ll be there. We’ll have another canine there. We’ve got another rescue dog coming in-country, from Budapest, Hungary. We’ll be there.

It’s just amazing over time how people can act towards this. How people forget. Or people think it’s not a big deal, or people have remarks to make.

What if it was somebody in your family? You weren’t there. Yes, it happened. It’s over.
People do have to get on, move on. But there’s gonna be a lot of effects from this for a lot of years to a lot of FDNY, a lot of the firefighters, the rescuers, the volunteers. Everybody that was down there would do it again without a doubt.

I know I’d go. I mean, it’s just what has to be done because it’s just the right thing to do.