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Richmond Hill detective sifted through Sept. 11 rubble with canine companion

POSTED: September 12, 2011 9:42 a.m.
Lewis Levine/

Richmond Hill Police Department Detective Doug Sahlberg kneels next to a headstone for his cadaver dog, Molly. Sahlberg and Molly spent two weeks searching for survivors at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

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Just as the memory of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination nearly 50 years ago forever is woven into the fabric of society, anyone old enough to remember the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America likely can recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when word came that the Twin Towers in New York City had been hit by two commercial jets.

More than 200 miles away, the Pentagon also had been attacked by terrorists using an airliner, and in Shanksville, Pa., another organized attack narrowly was avoided when brave men and women sacrificed their lives and brought down a jet that hijackers likely intended to fly into another Washington, D.C., structure.

For Doug Sahlberg, a detective with the Richmond Hill Police Department, the events that unfolded before the eyes of a horrified nation on Sept. 11, 2001, hold a special meaning for him. He and his faithful companion, Molly, a cadaver dog, went to New York City and for two weeks and sifted through the mountains of rubble that had been the World Trade Center, searching for the remains of victims. Ten years later, the bond the two shared still weighs heavy on Sahlberg’s heart. He lost not only a partner, but a friend, when Molly died from complications nearly four years after their trek to the scarred city.

Sahlberg recently recalled how he and Molly, a 1-year-old female golden-haired Labrador retriever, were plucked from obscurity to take part in one of the largest recovery missions on American soil.

On the afternoon of Sept. 11, Sahlberg — a Savannah fire chief at the time of the attacks — received word from his partner, John Frank, that they were needed in New York to assist in a recovery mission.

After quickly stuffing clothes and miscellaneous items into a bag, Sahlberg and Molly began the 15-hour trip by heading north on Interstate 95. As they made their way through the seven states between Georgia and New York, Sahlberg was surprised to receive a police escort through a few of them.

“When we reached the border of a few states, we were escorted through them with flashing lights and sirens. It was really nice the way we were treated as we made our way up there,” he said.

Sahlberg and Molly arrived as dawn crept over the site where the Twin Towers had stood as icons to the world’s financial markets just 24 hours earlier.

Sahlberg said that when he arrived, he reported to a New York Fire Department captain who paid very little attention to him until he learned Sahlberg had a cadaver dog.

He was instructed to report to a New York City police officer who held a German shepherd by the leash.

Sahlberg recalled making his way into the 16-acre site by detouring through a building that had been heavily damaged when the towers fell.

“Molly and I had to make our way through the wreckage of this building, which had standing water that was knee-deep at certain spots,” he said. “When we finally made it into the site, I was overwhelmed at how far-spread the destruction was. It was surreal.”

Within minutes of arriving, Sahlberg was greeted by the sight of rescue workers carrying victims’ remains.

“I saw rescue workers gently carrying limbs from victims who perished in the attacks. It was moving how remains were treated with respect and dignity,” he said.

Sahlberg and Molly immediately began the daunting task of searching for survivors in the wreckage. For the next two weeks, the duo worked 15- to 18-hour days recovering the remains of nearly 1,000 victims.

The job came with a high degree of risk, Sahlberg said, and he encountered drops of up to 30 feet.

“They would have to hoist Molly down to me by harnesses so we could sift through the wreckage in the hopes of finding survivors at first. Unfortunately, we didn’t find anyone alive,” he said sadly.

When he and Molly returned to Savannah, they were greeted as heroes, a word Sahlberg said he never has been comfortable with.

“The real heroes, in my opinion, are the firefighters, police officers and emergency medical personnel who ran into those burning buildings to save as many people without any regard to the fact they may not make it out alive,” Sahlberg said. “Those are the heroes, not me.”

The two partners went on with their daily lives, providing assistance to area departments with recovery and search-and-rescue efforts on the streets of Savannah and in Bryan and Liberty counties.

During the next few years, Molly had the opportunity to work on such high-profile cases as the discovery of a slain Gum Branch couple and the disappearance of Cyndi Lynch, a Swainsboro woman whose body later was pulled from the Wilmington River.

During the Lynch case, Sahlberg noticed Molly was losing weight and didn’t seem up to the task of searching for the missing woman.

“She began to vomit and not want to do much,” he said. Out of concern, Sahlberg took his partner to the vet, where she was diagnosed with an illness attributed to breathing toxic dust while searching through rubble at the World Trade Center.

Molly died peacefully in late January 2005.

Sahlberg said he tried to mask his emotions and he regrets not being with her the night she died.

“To this day, I regret leaving her alone. I thought she would make it through the night,” he said. “It still weighs heavy on my mind I was not with her in the end.”

A week later, Molly was remembered in a ceremony near the police station.

A gray headstone lists her accomplishments and serves as a reminder of Molly’s life and service to the nation.

Sahlberg said someone leaves flowers on the marker every year, a small token of appreciation for one of the nation’s canine heroes who answered the call when her country needed her.

Sahlberg since has partnered with a black lab named Echo.  

The detective, who still has memories of the days and nights spent on the pile that once was a New York skyline landmark, no longer does cadaver searches. 

“I had enough after being at Ground Zero,” he said. “I would much rather track someone through the woods.”

While Sahlberg called the emergency personnel the true heroes of 9/11, he has not forgotten the men and women in uniform who have paid the ultimate sacrifice to keep the nation safe from attacks. 

“I think about those kids who were maybe 9 or 10 years old at the time and now are giving their lives to protect this country, knowing that eventually they’re going to have to fight and maybe die for this country,” Sahlberg said. “These kids and their families have my respect.”

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