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CONSTRUCTION SITE DISASTER

George residents champion the ‘superdogs’ searching for survivors of building collapse

George residents champion the ‘superdogs’ searching for survivors of building collapse
Sergeant Willie Visser of Cape Town K9 Search and Rescue with his dog Abby on the scene of the building collapse in George, 8 May 2024. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

Visiting the scene of the collapsed building in George on Wednesday, Gift of the Givers founder Dr Imtiaz Sooliman described sniffer dogs as a ‘key’ element of the search and rescue effort. Community members have been providing vital supplies and support for human and K9 personnel at the site.

Members of the George community have been quick to provide support and supplies to those involved in the rescue effort at the site of the collapsed building on Victoria Street, including the dogs from K9 units that have been essential for locating workers trapped in the rubble.

Mariann Wilson, a volunteer with the K9 Search and Rescue Association of South Africa, arrived in George on Monday at 8pm with her K9 partner, Echo. Half an hour later, the pair were searching for victims amid the destruction. Wilson said that the support from the local community had been “amazing”.

Mariann Wilson, a volunteer with K9 Search and Rescue South Africa, and her dog Echo on the scene of the building collapse in George, 8 May 2024. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

“We’ve had donations of food, treats, dog beds. We’ve just been given some paddling pools, which is not for the heat. It’s very important that once off the rubble, we clean the dogs’ feet so that they don’t lie down and lick their paws because then that all goes into their system … We’re very grateful for all the help from the community of George,” she told Daily Maverick on Wednesday afternoon.

Wilson is one of two K9 handlers from the K9 Search and Rescue Association of South Africa working at the scene. The other is James Smart with his dog, Chaos. They have been joined by four members of South African Police Service K9 units from the Western Cape and Eastern Cape, and three dog handlers from Gift of the Givers.

James Smart, a volunteer with K9 Search and Rescue South Africa, and his dog Chaos on the scene of the building collapse in George, 8 May 2024. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

“All the dogs have been amazing,” Wilson said.

During a visit to the scene of the collapsed building on Wednesday, Gift of the Givers founder Dr Imtiaz Sooliman said that in this type of disaster, dogs were key. 

“There is no substitute for sniffer dogs … We realised during the floods of April 2022 in KZN, one of the biggest problems that we had in finding people, whether alive people or bodies, was the absence of sniffer dogs, and we made arrangements now to give a lot of sniffer dogs to police services,” he said.

“You can see in every situation now, it wasn’t equipment or a machine [but] a dog that found the live people and the deceased bodies.”

‘A first’ in Western Cape

Warrant Officer Riaan le Roux, a member of the SAPS Breede River K9 Unit in the Western Cape, said that the building collapse in George was the largest disaster of its kind that he had seen.

“For the Western Cape area, a disaster like this is a first for us. We’ve worked smaller incidents, we worked the disaster in Durban a few years back. But collapsed structures … this vast … we haven’t worked something like this,” he said.

Keeping the dogs safe on site had been the handlers’ first priority, he continued. 

“We’ll do anything for our dogs. It’s the bonding process of handler and dog. We won’t put the one above the other. Your dog is your everything. You work with them day in, day out … We assess everything as we get it, but we don’t want to see anything happen to them.”

Sergeant Nichola Kotze of Khowa K9 Unit Eastern Cape with her dog Dina on the scene of the building collapse in George, 8 May 2024. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

Dogs in K9 units usually spend their whole career working with the same person, said Sergeant Nichola Kotze of the SAPS Khowa K9 Unit in the Eastern Cape. She was on the scene with her dog, Dina.

Kotze said the dogs are trained from when they are just over a year old and can work for up to 12 years, depending on their health. 

“We wouldn’t be where we are without our dogs. Our first priority is the welfare of our dogs and if they are well taken care of and they are happy, then they are happy working. And then after that, we look after ourselves,” she said.

The main challenge for the rescuers at the disaster scene in George has been the time it takes to remove the large cement slabs lying in between the rubble, she said. “It’s unstable, you can’t just go in. You have to be careful.”

Sergeant Buyisile Makhosonke of Lusikisiki K9 Search and Rescue Eastern Cape with his dog Bond on the scene of the building collapse in George, 8 May 2024. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

Special bond

The close bond between handlers and their dogs was vital as without it, the handlers would not have control at disaster scenes, said Sergeant Buyisile Makhosonke of SAPS Lusikisiki K9 Search and Rescue in the Eastern Cape. He was working the scene with Bond.

“If you’re not close, you won’t get control over the dog … The dog must know you,” he told Daily Maverick.

Sergeant Willie Visser of Cape Town K9 Search and Rescue with his dog Abby on the scene of the building collapse in George, 8 May 2024. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

This sentiment was echoed by Sergeant Willie Visser of the SAPS Cape Town K9 Search and Rescue, who was working the scene with his dog, Abby. He said, “If you’re on a collapsed structure and you can feel that floor is vibrating … if you tell your dog to stay there, the dog must stay there. Because you know if he moves, something can happen to him. If I move, something could happen to both of us.

“These dogs do everything with us, from white-water rafting, abseiling with us, sometimes jumping in and out of helicopters, 4×4-ing with us … I call them superdogs. The bond must be very strong.” DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

    United in tragedy, this is a reminder that we can restore national unity under a leadership which understands that moral values is the fiber that holds a society intact.
    Our current leaders believe that being a leader is shouting the wrongs that we know and are not happy about.
    It is unfortunate that leaders spend a whole campaign discussing the wrongs of another party, we want to know the wrongs of the campaigning party and what they will do to to fix them, and then they can add what they learned from wrongs of other parties and what measures will be put into place to deal with them.
    No party is exempt from one form of corruption or other, its how it is dealt with that matters.
    Protecting resources in the hands of current voters from a certain class of voters desperate for such resources will widen the gap, and delay parties in moving from opposition to Leadership, Legal and compensable distribution of such resources will make what we see from the beautiful community of George a norm nationwide.
    This has been made possible by good governance and a low level of crime otherwise we will be talking of the same rescuers being robbed.
    The DA and the community must applauded for one of the best rescue operations in the world, and one would expect that speedy investigations will follow, we can not avoid the fact that processes were not followed somewhere in the value chain.
    A speedy recovery and a safe rescue of all victims is in our prayers.

  • Norman Sander says:

    I bet the dog named Chaos is a Malinois. I have one of those. Cleverest dog I’ve ever had who will find anything you hide from him. When he was little it was certainly CHAOS but he has grown into a strong, boisterous, loving companion and at 4 years old. His Grandad was 3 times world champion. His intelligence levels are off the scale and energy levels are if the same order.
    I am sure that the dogs are doing great job in George.
    May they all be blessed.

    • Hulme Scholes says:

      One of the other dogs in the photos is a GSP, I have one, they are crazy too, incredible sense of smell. What a tragedy this building collapse is. Now let’s wait to hear the excuses for a disaster that should probably never have happened.

  • Peter Atller says:

    Why does the story so fill my heart/being with pride and hope…well, I am feeling it. Well done guys and your human companions!

  • Peter Atller says:

    Why does the story so fill my heart/being with pride and hope…well, I am feeling it. Well done guys and your human companions!

  • Craig Cauvin says:

    Such a terrible tragedy, but so heart-warming to see what an incredible impact these ‘superdogs’ are making – Well done Abby & Chaos & Dina & Bond & Echo – You guys (and of course your handlers) are the real stars.

  • Noel Soyizwaphi says:

    That construction company is one of the many that are owned by whites. Well done for the rescue though and condolences to the bereaved black families, including undocumented foreign nationals that also died there

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