Tribute to hero dog from South Jersey on display at 9/11 Museum
RUNNEMEDE - Anna, a gentle German shepherd, was a favorite visitor at the Barrington Senior Center, recalls Sue Sanders.
Sanders of Runnemede, who organized activities at the center, would always make it a point to pet Anna during her frequent stops.
Anna (pronounced AH-nah) was a certified therapy dog but also was trained in search and rescue. It was in that role that she and her owner-handler, Sarah Atlas, were deployed to New York with New Jersey Task Force One on Sept. 11, 2001.
Within months of the assignment, Anna became ill and retired from service. In 2002, she had to be put down.
Sanders, an amateur artist and quilter, seized an opportunity to honor Anna when she heard a New York fabric artist was gathering 9/11 tribute quilts.
“Can I do a memorial quilt about a dog?” Sanders asked.
The answer was yes, and Sanders created and shipped off a 3-by-6-foot quilt dedicated to Anna. The artwork became part of the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s permanent collection when it opened in 2014.
Now it’s highlighted in a special exhibit at the museum in New York City called “Dogs of 9/11,” which opened in late July and will run through fall 2019.
At the invitation of museum staff, Sanders and her family went to see the exhibit on Aug. 6. Sanders, 83, who walks with a cane, toured the museum in a wheelchair to see the quilt she hasn’t laid eyes on since 2002.
“Of course, when I saw the quilt on the line hanging, I filled up,” she said.
The honor for Anna also stirs emotion for Atlas, who worked side-by-side with her search-and-rescue dog for 10 days amid the rubble of the World Trade Center.
“She was a tough dog,” Atlas said. “She was very protective of me. She had a great work ethic.”
Atlas, now retired from New Jersey Task Force One and living in Millville, was a Barrington resident when she got Anna as a puppy. “She marched up and grabbed me by the pant leg,” Atlas said. “She selected me.”
She knew members of Pennsylvania Task Force One through her work as a paramedic, and told them Anna, though just a puppy at the time, would make an ideal search-and-rescue dog. Atlas and Anna began working with the task force, which is run by FEMA, and later switched to the New Jersey group.
On Sept. 11, Atlas and Anna reached New York around noon, less than four hours after one of the hijacked planes hit the first tower.
They waited at the Jacob Javits Center — 15 blocks from the scene and as close as they were permitted until they were pressed into duty.
“It was very surreal,” Atlas recalled. “I remember walking down and seeing thousands of people. People were whispering, ‘The dogs are here. They’ll find them.’”
But by the time Atlas and Anna arrived, no survivors remained in the rubble. And the nature of the work was to move quickly from one site to another, not knowing exactly what they uncovered.
“We were told after the fact that we did help with recovery,” Atlas said.
Atlas, who has suffered her own health issues in the aftermath of Sept. 11, said she believes Anna’s death was connected to her work at the World Trade Center site.
“Everyone said no one was going to get sick,” Atlas said.
But Anna came home with bacterial and fungal infections, and other serious ailments.
“In my heart, and seeing other dogs becoming ill, I’ll always believe she became ill from working there.”
The quilt that the 9/11 museum simply titled “Anna” faithfully depicts the German shepherd’s black and brown coloring and trademark stars-and-stripes bandanna, based on a portrait Sanders requested from Atlas.
“I did a background of flames and copied the steel as it looked on the TV and painted that on the quilt,” Sanders said.
The quilt is the only one in the museum that’s dedicated to a dog and has a dog as its central feature
Amy Weinstein, vice president of Collections and Oral History at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, said the artwork is a poignant symbol of the emotions surrounding the terror attack.
“Sue Sanders’ quilt ‘Anna’ exemplifies every facet of the aftermath of 9/11 — horror at the devastation and loss of life, respect and compassion for the responders, including the search-and-rescue dogs, and a desire to comfort those who were in pain,” Weinstein said via email. “Sanders and the quilt are both filled with that spirit of compassion that was so prevalent after 9/11 lovingly portrayed in all of the design elements that make up her quilt.”
That’s a pretty lofty description for a woman who describes her artwork as “just a hobby.”
Sanders, who won first-place awards for her watercolor paintings in Camden County seniors’ art contests, previously had only created quilts as gifts for birthdays, weddings and baby showers.
Her Anna quilt also was featured in a book titled “Dog Heroes of September 11: A Tribute to America’s Search and Rescue Dogs,” published in 2006 though The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation.
As modest as Sanders might be about her talent and contributions, she was treated like a celebrity at her recent visit to the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
She and her family were given a personal VIP tour. When visitors and staff learned from Sanders’ grandson that she was the artist who made the quilt, they wanted to ask her all about it.
“I felt so special. I really did,” she said.
When Anna had to retire because of illness, Atlas trained another dog, Tango, for search-and-rescue duty.
Tango was a “security blanket” for Atlas when she returned to the World Trade Center site for one of the early anniversaries as the victims’ names were read aloud.
She said she was able to purchase and train Tango “because of the kindness shown to me by so many people” in the Haddonfield community where she worked at the time.
The community’s fundraising inspired Atlas to pay it forward and start her own nonprofit to help other civilian volunteer handlers, awarding number of grants while funds lasted.
Much of the public doesn’t understand everything that goes into grooming a dog for search-and-rescue work, Atlas said. “It’s thousands of hours of training, and it’s all out of pocket,” Atlas said. “We buy our own dogs and pay our own vet bills. It’s a lifestyle.”
Atlas said dogs also have to go through a rigorous two- to three-year training period, learning such advanced skills as rappelling and jumping from helicopters.
Sheri Berkery: @SheriBerkery; 856-486-2673; email@example.com