Only days after the World Trade Center collapsed to the ground, Harrisonburg Police Officer Chris Showalter, his loyal companion, Wilco, and Harrisonburg Police Chaplain Jim Cook packed the car and traveled to the heart of the scene.
Ten years later, their experiences still shake them to the core.
Chris Showalter was the handler for Wilco, a German Shepherd, in the police department's canine unit for six years.
He and Wilco had just received the search and rescue accreditation a few months before the attacks.
He says after seeing the planes crash into the towers, he wanted to help in any way.
Cook, a former New York City police officer who retired to the Valley, was put in touch with an N.Y.P.D. Sergeant working at the Ground Zero command post.
The two men spent an entire week working 16 hours per day.
Chris and Wilco spent their days searching for bodies and body parts through the 17 acres of destruction, while Jim comforted families of victims, emergency workers and anyone else needed support.
The two men both agreed that Ground Zero was unlike anything they had ever seen through their years in the police force.
Showalter said the heat was so strong that firefighters had to constantly hose down the destruction to make it bearable for emergency workers to search among the damage.
Jim wrote in his memoir of his experience, “At night with the bright floodlights, it looked like something out of the movie set. During the day, you could see the metal girders, that were twisted from the intense heat, that had dripped like candle wax.”
The pads of Wilco's paws were so rubbed down from the dust and sharp metal that he had to wear specially made boots half way through the week.
“You could tell he was embarrassed about wearing them, but he did it. Every day he kept searching,” said Showalter.
And while Wilco was a cadaver search dog, he also served in a much larger role over the week.
“People were always hugging him and he just let them. He was a huge comfort,” said Chris.
“The girlfriend or wife of a man that was inside when the buildings fell tied a bandana around Wilco one morning. She wrapped her arms around him crying and told him to 'please find him.' I'll always remember that.”
Wilco died in 2006 at the age of 12. Today, only 15 out of the 350 search canines are still alive.
Chaplain Jim Cook was there to give support and hope in a time when there was none.
His job was to comfort those who lost loved ones, but also those who tirelessly worked to uncover bodies from the rummage.
He says the only thing he could do was hug and cry those suffering.
“On one occasion, I saw a retired fireman, about my age, sitting on an empty bucket. I asked him if he was okay and with tears in his eyes, he looked at me, while pointing to the pile of rubble and replied, 'My son is in there.'”
“What do you do or say? I just put my arms around him and we cried together.”
When asked what kept them going back each day, they said “the people” in unison.
“When we would be leaving Ground Zero, people were lined up on the streets for blocks and blocks,” said Chris. “They had signs, flags. They would bring us clothes, water and food. Always thanking us.”
“As tired and drained as you were, you wanted to turn around and go right back to the site,” said Jim.
Today, Chris and Jim say they still struggle with their experiences.
“I'll never get over it. This year for some reason has been tougher than the others,” said Chris.
Yet if something happens again, they would do it all over without a second thought.
To many, these men are valley heroes. They, however, balk at this statement.
“The heroes are the victims. The heroes are the families that deal with this loss each and every day,” said Jim.
To them, it was their duty.
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