Explosives-sniffing dog, his handler have unusual connection to 9/11
Dell Hart and his partner, an 80-pound black Labrador named Hhoward, have taken many trips together as one of the Transportation Security Administration's canine explosives detection teams: to Super Bowls, political conventions, a G-8 summit.
All were important assignments that form the core of the Indianapolis-based team's mission at the TSA. But it was a trip the pair took to New York a few weeks ago that Hart said will always stand out in his mind. There were no big crowds, no politicians, no superstar quarterbacks.
Instead, waiting for them at a firehouse in Manhattan was Chris Howard, the son of the man for whom Hhoward was named.
George Howard, a New York/New Jersey Port Authority Police Officer and volunteer firefighter, was among the first responders who died trying to rescue people when the World Trade Center collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001. He was 45.
The TSA's canine ranks includes several dogs named for victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. Those dogs are designated with double consonants at the beginning of their names.
Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the attacks when hijackers flew commercial airliners into New York's World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, are scheduled to be among those commemorating the 17th anniversary of the attacks Tuesday at a ceremony in Shanksville. Others around the country will remember the day by participating in service projects.
Hart and Hhoward will spend part of their day at a special ceremony at the TSA's headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. TSA Administrator David Pekoske, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and former Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta are also expected to speak.
And as always, not far from Hart's mind will be Hhoward's namesake.
Seven years ago, when Hart was assigned to work with Hhoward, his bosses at the TSA explained the tradition and a little about the man for whom the dog was named.
George Howard, who had worked for several years as a Washington, D.C., firefighter, was on his day off when he heard a call on the radio. He arrived on the scene just as the first tower collapsed, Hart said.
Hart was given a choice about whether he wanted to reach out to the family. He was nervous.
"I didn't want to stir up bad memories," he said. Eventually, he found himself writing to Howard's mother, Arlene. He said he "wanted to let her and her family and friends know that we were going to be carrying on her son's legacy.''
Arlene Howard wrote back immediately, Hart recalled. And she was heartened to know that her son's commitment to service was living on in Hhoward.
"It adds a whole other element of pride - a sense of mission," Hart said of his years working with the namesake of one of the first responders who died on 9/11. "It gives me something to reflect on all the time."
He said that he often shares George Howard's story with people who stop to chat about Hhoward and their work.
Hart has his own connection to the Sept. 11 attacks. He had left the military and was working for an Indianapolis-based logistics firm. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was on an early morning flight bound for meetings in New York when, somewhere over Pennsylvania, the plane began to circle.
"We assumed it was something mechanical," he said.
It was only when the diverted flight landed at the small, rural airport that Hart and his fellow passengers realized what had happened. Inside the terminal, people were huddled around the airport's single television set, where footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center was playing.
"There was a lot of disbelief," he recalled. "A lot anger. It was surreal."
A few hours later, Hart and others would learn that the airport where they landed was not far from the field in Shanksville where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed.
Hart remembered being glued to the television as officials tried to piece together what happened. It took Hart a week before he was able to rent a car and drive back to Indianapolis, which gave him a lot of time to think. He was angry, yes - but how, he wondered, could he channel his feelings in a meaningful way?
"The whole thing really affected me to the point where I really wanted to do something to prevent that kind of thing from happening again," Hart said.
He considered reenlisting, but with two small children at home, he decided to explore other options.
He picked the TSA, which he thought would allow him to help stop future attacks. He began as a front-line officer, part of the first class of 300 recruits who fanned out across the country to federalize airport security and train other recruits. In 2011, he became a canine handler.
You might say that Hart has a way with Hhoward, who had gone through two handlers before being matched with the former military policeman. Other handlers had no trouble entering the kennels and slipping the collars and leashes on their dogs. It took Hart 10 minutes to get one on Hhoward.
But after about a month, the situation improved. There were harsh words, and maybe a little wrestling, but the pair bonded.
"We reached an understanding," Hart recalled with a chuckle.
After all these years, meeting Chris Howard was a special moment. In a video of the meeting, George Howard's son jokes that Hhoward bears a striking resemblance to his father.
Hart said that while visiting with Chris in New York, the pair ran into a group of Port Authority Police, who made Hhoward an honorary officer. As proof of his membership, Hhoward wears a special gray, black and white Port Authority patch on his harness.
At 10 1/2, Hhoward is edging toward retirement. But he will remain with Hart, living out his days on his handler's 30-plus-acre spread in Indiana.
And Hart has a plan for his next partner. When he was visiting Chris Howard, he ran into another firefighter whose father had died on Sept. 11. The man asked if the TSA had a dog named after his father. Hart said when he receives his next dog, he plans to ask his supervisors if the canine can be re-christened in honor of the firefighter's father. It's a small gesture, Hart said, but small gestures mean a lot to people.
This article was written by Lori Aratani, a reporter for The Washington Post.