It was probably some combination of instinct and training that drew Captain Scott Shields to the World Trade Center site on the morning of 9/11 in a harrowing 38-minute drive from his home in Westport, Connecticut. And, of course, his dog, Bear, went with him, because Bear was always with him. On that fateful day Bear was the only search-and-rescue (SAR) dog. For his hard work that day and the days following he now has his own brick in the 9/11 Memorial to Fallen Heroes wall at the Fire Department of New York and Emergency Medical Service Training Academy at Fort Totten, New York. "That’s how much the firemen respected Bear," says Shields, who at the time of 9/11 was an independent consultant with his own marine safety business in New York Harbor who went to the World Trade Center as a volunteer.
After standing among the burning, collapsing buildings on 9/11, Shields began to understand what firefighters do in their daily work, acting out the motto of SAR workers: "So others may live." Shields says: "These are not just words – people will give their lives for them. Now everything I do is to support people like that."
His new book, "Bear: Heart of a Hero, the 9/11 Dog," written with co-author Nancy West, tells about his and Bear’s experiences at the World Trade Center. Shields will appear for a book signing at Barnes and Noble Marketfair on Thursday, September 8. Dr. Jane Goodall has called the book "one of the best human/animal relationship stories I know of."
Fifteen years ago Shields wasn’t simply neutral about dogs. "I had adamantly not wanted a dog," he says. "I didn’t want the responsibility." But harangued by a girlfriend who wanted a puppy for Christmas, he found himself walking home one day with a golden ball of fur and says he "fell in love with Honey the first night. I never loved anything as much as Honey and Bear (Honey’s son, who was born in Shields’ Westport office), and it made me a better rescuer to love something more than myself."
Shields was raised in Miami Beach and New York City. His father died when Shields was very young and his mother had a dress shop in New York. Shields graduated from Drew University in 1976 with a bachelors in political science (with additional concentrations in art and women’s studies). Although Shields began his career as a successful entrepreneur and owner of a dress design and manufacturing company, he eventually switched to a career in emergency management. He fell naturally into rescue work while volunteering as a conservation officer in Westport. The boat he patrolled in was smaller than a police boat. "I would make rescues that the police boat couldn’t do. I never thought about doing it with a dog until at age one-and-a-half Bear jumped off the boat and grabbed a drowning kid by the wrist and brought him in," he says.
The lessons Shields learned in his first career, however, were often critical in his second. For one thing, the garment industry required him to to deal with diverse groups, from the mob to the post office. "Dealing with the mob taught me to deal with people," says Shields. At one point during the early days at the World Trade Center, a harbor chief was interfering with Shields’ attempt to organize a water shuttle for rescue workers. Until that time they had been carrying heavy equipment in the heat down the West Side Highway, sometimes with severe health consequences. The chief claimed that the harbor was closed due to fears of more terrorists, but Shields made a split-second decision that the chief needed to be circumvented. He used a bullhorn so that the people around him would view him as the more dominant person. As a result, he was able to convince them to physically remove the chief. Similarly, he says, "as business person, I was always the highest person in the room."
Working in the garment industry also taught him to be goal-oriented and not method-oriented." "When hell came to visit New York, I could think outside of the box," he says.
It wasn’t just his business experience, however, that readied him for 9/11. "Everything I ever learned and did prepared me for coming down into the void," he says. It was in Boy Scouts, for example, that he had learned how to repel. He also earned "a hundred credentials in emergency management," from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Coast Guard, the Army Training Institute for National Disaster, the Red Cross, and the National Guard.
Shields was relentless at the World Trade Center. He fractured two ankles at the site and had medics wrap his ankles in air casts. "I worked like that for six months," he says. Having forgotten to bring his blood pressure medicine the first day, he worked until the medics forced him to go to the hospital. But against his doctor’s advice, he went right back to work on the site rather than go home to rest.
Shields’ commitment to emergency management extends even to the language he uses. The command that Shields used to tell Bear to search for a victim – "Find the baby" – is one that he uttered often in those first few days at Ground Zero. His reasoning? "Everybody is somebody’s baby." Such language rests gently on the ears of other rescue people who more often find victims of a tragedy than survivors. He recalls his own horror, shared by others at the scene, when another rescue worker gave his dog the command, "Find the dead guy." "Language has power and must be used with care," Shields says. "Words in my case are weapons to keep people alive."
Shields looks at his book – although overtly the heroic story of a man and his dog in the midst of a great tragedy – as a "weapon to try to change things." The problems that lay unresolved in the wake of 9/11 are plentiful, and he addresses some in the book and others by testifying in Congress and expressing his opinions forcefully elsewhere.
One such issue is whether people in New York City should have been evacuated. The rescuers thought so, but Shields says that the EPA lied about the air quality in lower Manhattan.
Another issue that makes Shields angry is the pet insurance company that offered health coverage to all search-and-rescue dogs and then denied coverage because of "preexisting conditions." When CNN interviewed Shields about it, he asked, "How can you deny the biggest hero of the Trade Center?" Bear, an 11-year-old golden retriever, was wounded at Ground Zero and died a year later from cancer. Shields says that Bear had never been sick a day in his life before the experience in the toxic soup at the World Trade Center and believes the company never intended to pay up but was simply looking for publicity. Eventually the company bowed to pressure. (Bear was buried as a fireman and his memorial service, held at USS Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York Harbor, was attended by thousands of people.)
Based on his own experiences at Ground Zero, Shields believes that the 9/11 Commission Report "was not a good piece of work." The report, he says, was written by people in charge of enforcement, rather than people from diverse backgrounds who actually worked at the site, from hazardous materials specialists to construction workers to firefighters.
Another serious concern is that President Bush’s budget director took away the funding for workers’ compensation for the World Trade Center rescue workers – fire, police, EMS, and construction workers. He says that about six weeks ago he was testifying before Congress with an emergency medical technician to try to get the workers’ compensation restored. Four weeks ago the man died of respiratory failure.
Shields has been very involved with the Bear Search and Rescue Foundation. The organization is the largest non-government funder of search and rescue, and each year it bestows Extraordinary Service to Humanity Awards. This year the ceremony will take place on Saturday, September 17, at the USS Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York.
Shields’ experiences in the wake of the World Trade Center tragedy have made him fairly pessimistic about the people in charge. "People are better than their government," he says. "I’m not about right or left – they’re all in it for themselves. I’ve seen very little leadership from either side in Congress." His wry observation is that "our politicians need to take the emergency management courses, not us."
When asked about what it takes to train a search and rescue dog, Shields might as well be talking about how he runs his life. "Persistence is probably my best trait; I never give up." Until his experience at the World Trade Center, he says he didn’t really know he was that way. He grew up in a family who advised not fighting against City Hall and believed it was not possible to effect change. Yet Shields’ rescue work following 9/11 has changed his life: "What I learned was that if one dog and one man can make a difference, anyone can. We made a critical difference at a critical moment in our nation’s history. It made me realize that you can change things and you just have to be persistent."
Certainly persistence is part of what drove his fellow rescuers at the World Trade Center, but Shields feels it was more than that. "The most amazing part is when someone does something that would jeopardize their own existence to keep other people alive. I was surrounded by these brothers and sisters who would have died for each other." He remembers that they all went in thinking they were going to die – surrounded by leaning facades, with pieces falling around them as high as trucks, and everything on fire.
"No one did it for glory," he says. "They did it to do the right thing. It takes great bravery to steadfastly walk into death. It was greatness that happened that day."
Shields’ book describes the heroic work of many: a rescue worker who scaled seven stories of a leaning building to save someone, construction workers who cut steel, lighting guys who brought motion picture lighting from Broadway to enable night operations, fire boats that supplied water, other boats that provided shelter and food for rescue workers, vets who took care of the animals, and ordinary people who supplied what the workers needed to do their jobs. "It’s not just fire and police, but about everyone doing it together," says Shields. "That’s what this country is about."
After 9/11 Shields moved to New York City, but last year he moved again – this time to a townhouse in Princeton, which he finds a convenient central point for his work that allows him to remain close to New York. He is still involved in both rescue missions and foundation work, which take him to Pennsylvania, Florida, Maryland, and South Jersey, where he is tied in with the Coast Guard. At press time Shields was in New Orleans helping with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
In 2002, after Bear died, Shields got another dog, Theo, then six months old, from the same kennel outside Princeton where Bear’s father came from. Bear and Theo, though only distantly related, come from the same bloodline, and Shields, who is not married and has no children, calls him his "grandson," just as he called Bear his "son." Whereas Bear was a one-man dog, Shields says, "Theo is sweeter and cuter and loves kids."
At three and half, Theo already has under his rescue dog belt a kidnapping, a lost child, and a missing woman. Shields and West are already at work on their next book: "Theodore to the Rescue," told in the first-person in Theo’s "voice," is a picture book for children to help them understand what to do if they become lost in the woods. They are hoping to turn the book into a series.
It appears that Theo has the same powerful "way" that Bear had. After the ribbon cutting at the opening of the Aurora Hospital in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Shields and Theo went upstairs to visit patients. A woman came up to Shields and asked, "Can you visit my daughter; she’s been in a diabetic coma for two weeks, and she loves animals." Thinking to himself that the visit wasn’t going to change anything, he nevertheless followed her. When they got to the room, Theo leaped onto the bed. As a dozen news people were in the doorway flashing their cameras, the woman came out of the coma.