Scott County search, rescue team returns from Joplin

Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Christa Tucker works Taz in Joplin, Mo. (Submitted photo)

With sirens almost constantly sounding, backhoes and other equipment causing commotion among miles of debris, Christa Tucker of the Scott County K-9 Search and Rescue Team worried her dog Taz wouldn't stay focused on their mission in tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo.

Under Tucker's command, though, the 2-year-old blue heeler worked his way through thick rubble -- destroyed apartment buildings and townhomes mostly -- alerting on scents of the disaster's deceased.

"As a blue heeler, she's high-strung to begin with. She puts it all into her work," Tucker said. "She did excellent during this mission. I'm very proud of her."

The Scott County crew arrived Friday morning, bringing eight handlers and three dogs. The rescue team, whose members returned Sunday, is associated with Scott County Emergency Management and consists of 12 volunteer dog handlers who have traveled the country for missions since 2004.

The death toll has fluctuated some since the EF5 twister hit the city of 50,000. The Missouri Department of Public Safety said in an evening news release 123 people have been confirmed dead. At one point, authorities thought 139 to be dead.

As of Tuesday the number of unaccounted-for individuals has been reduced to 10, from 232 on May 26, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

Responding to the disaster in Joplin was Tucker's first mission with Taz since receiving their certification with the National Police Working Dogs Association.

"The people of Joplin were very gracious. They were very thankful that people came out to help," said Capt. Marshia Morton, the K-9 search and rescue team's leader. "We only wish we could have done more."

During two days in Joplin, the team helped to clear several neighborhoods and groups of townhomes. Tucker said Tuesday she thinks the homes they searched were spread around the city but couldn't be sure because there were no street signs, only road names spray painted where the signs once stood.

"We had to have escorts to our destinations to do the search because of the traffic and the debris. There was nothing to identify where we were going," she said.

While the crew's dogs may have alerted on an area, they didn't actually dig into the deep piles of debris and pull out human remains, Morton said Tuesday.

"We would hit on an area and somebody else would uncover it, so exactly how many were found we don't know," she said. "There were body parts found, but exactly how many I don't know. It was equivalent to a bomb going off. ... It was complete devastation."

Searching one apartment building, Tucker said, her canine found something unexpected -- a scared orange tabby cat. Near a closet, Taz froze, said Tucker, who at first tried to get the dog to search another part of the residence. Taz wouldn't move, so when Tucker saw the area on her own she found her dog in a staring contest with the cat.

Luckily, they found a pet carrier with a phone number in the apartment and were able to contact the owner.

"It was a nice accident," Tucker said. "It was actually a highlight that we got to reunite a family with their lost pet."

The team heads to southern Oklahoma in two weeks, when they'll be helping work a cold case for the National Center for Missing Persons.

ehevern@semissourian.com

388-3635

Pertinent address:

Joplin, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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