Meet the Guiding-eye Dogs of 9/11

Article | May 2022

Humans and dogs have been companions for thousands of years. In Dogs Who Changed the World we meet 50 canines who have had unique relationships with their owners, and who achieved extraordinary things. In this extract we meet Salty and Rosie, the guiding-eye dogs of 9/11.

 

Salty could dart through a crowd, sensing gaps before they appeared, and shoot through, leading his owner Omar Rivera to safety. As a guide dog, Salty’s first beat was Yorktown Heights in North Westchester, but part of his training included trips to New York City to ride the subway, skilfully ignoring hotdog stands and the traffic-choked avenues of the Bronx; he was well versed in navigating rush hour. ‘He was definitely a city dog,’ his trainer Caroline McCabe-Sandler said.

A pale-golden Labrador retriever (a breed known for its intelligence, playful attitude, and all-round waggy-tail friendliness), Salty graduated from Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Westchester County in 1998. Standards are extremely high for a guide dog and not every pup makes the grade. McCabe-Sandler, who also trains dogs to work with children on the autism spectrum, placed her star pupil with Omar Rivera, a Westchester man living with vision loss.

On September 11, 2001, Salty helped guide Rivera to work on the 71st floor of tower one of the World Trade Center (One WTC). They arrived early, at around 7am, and Rivera, who worked in IT, had a meeting to prepare for with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. At about 8.45am, Rivera was ready to go, with Salty dozing peacefully at his workstation. He heard the unplaceable sound he would later understand to be American Airlines Flight 11, hijacked and crashing into the tower, 22 floors above him. The building shook, Rivera’s computer fell to the floor, and Salty – clearly disturbed – ran up and down a hallway close to Rivera’s desk. Something extraordinary had happened.

Salty wasn’t the only guide dog working in One WTC that day. Just seven storeys up, on the 78th floor, worked sales director Michael Hingson, another man with vision loss, and his own guide dog, golden Labrador retriever Roselle. Roselle was a Californian girl, blonde as the day is long. Having been trained at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, in 1999 she took the place of Hingson’s fifth guide dog.

Hingson and Roselle had also started their day a little earlier than usual, just like Rivera and Salty, and had travelled in from New Jersey via taxi and the PATH train. Hingson had set up the conference room for a breakfast meeting and Roselle was waiting close to the door to greet the attendees. And then the plane hit. In the moments immediately afterwards, Roselle remained so incredibly calm that, for a moment, Hingson thought things might not be so serious after all. But then the reality of the situation hit. ‘Tearfully, colleagues said goodbye to each other. I was sure I was going to die,’ said Hingson in 2011. He started his evacuation down the stairwell, with Roselle guiding him and 30 of his co-workers. ‘If she had sensed danger she would have acted differently, but she didn’t,’ said Hingson. ‘Roselle and I were a team and I trusted her.’

Salty and Rosie - image from Dogs That Changed the WorldThe stairwell – full of the scent of smoke, falling debris, and the cries of the hundreds of people – took a gruelling hour to descend. Omar Rivera held onto Salty’s harness and started the long journey to the ground floor. Soon, the stairwell became too crowded, too confusing, and it was suggested Rivera let go of Salty’s harness so both could move more easily. But abandoning his owner was quite simply against Salty’s training. He refused to leave Rivera’s side. Rivera’s supervisor, Donna Enright, helped the pair descend further, and when another co-worker tried to help by taking hold of the harness, Salty again refused. He would not leave Rivera.

At the same moment, Roselle was guiding Michael Hingson through the same experience, keeping incredibly calm, staying close to his side. By the time Salty, Roselle, and their owners reached the street outside, Two WTC collapsed, engulfing them in dust and debris. Rivera and Salty were less than three blocks away; they had got out just in time. Roselle calmly led Hingson through the dust and confusion to a subway station, where they found and helped a woman who had been blinded by falling debris.

Salty and Roselle received a joint award for their incredible and no-doubt life-saving work. The Dickin Medal from the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals in 2002 was inscribed with the following: ‘For remaining loyally at the side of their blind owners, courageously leading them down more than 70 floors of the World Trade Center, and to a place of safety following the terrorist attack on New York on September 11, 2001.’

Salty passed away in 2008, and Roselle in 2011. ‘Trust: that’s the most important thing in a relationship with a guide dog,’ said Rivera in the 2011 Nat Geo documentary ‘Where Were You’. Salty was Rivera’s third guide dog, an essential companion for the man who had lost his sight when he was 28. ‘They give everything they have for almost nothing, just for love.’ 

Find out more about Salty and Rosie

Author: Dan Jones

Category: Lifestyle, sport & leisure

Book Format: Hardback

Publisher: Welbeck Editions

ISBN: 9781914317316

RRP: $24.99

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