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Thomas Berezowski with his prized golden retrievers, Chewy, left, and Gummie.
A Disaster Victim's Best Friend

Rescue Dog Handler Thomas Berezowski
"The wreckage from the earthquake in Taiwan was horrifying," recalls Thomas Berezowski, 47, president of the Aichi K-9 Disaster Search and Rescue Association in the city of Okazaki. "We were racing against the clock, though, so the shock and sadness of what we saw didn't sink in until much later. We were too absorbed in trying to save as many lives as possible."

The series of earthquakes that claimed over 2,400 lives first hit central Taiwan in the predawn hours of September 21, 1999. On the morning of September 22, Berezowski and two others, including his wife, Emiko Noguchi, 47, were at Nagoya Airport on their way to the disaster area with two rescue dogs. They spent the next three days searching for trapped victims in quake-devastated areas, working nearly around the clock. While they discovered many missing people, nearly all of them had been crushed to death in the initial wave of the violent tremors.

"We were really putting our lives on the line. Because of the frequent aftershocks, giant concrete blocks would come crashing down around us. Unfortunately, we weren't able to locate any survivors, but I'm proud of the help we were able to provide." He admits to having become a victim himself of a post-traumatic stress disorder, a common condition following exposure to large-scale disasters. Even as he plays with his two search and rescue dogs--Chewy, a four-year-old male, and Gummie, a two-year-old female--he is still haunted by images of the fear and misery he witnessed in Taiwan.

Born in Poland in 1952, Berezowski's first encounter with his Aichi-born wife was through an exchange of letters. The pen pals deepened their friendship when Emiko was in Europe attending school, and they came to Japan together in 1972, marrying two years later. He retired as a pilot on international routes for an Australian airline and now runs an English-conversation school at his home in Okazaki.

Berezowski founded the Aichi K-9 Disaster Search and Rescue Association, a nonprofit group, in April 1997. This was motivated by the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in and around Kobe in January 1995, whose death toll exceeded 6,000. Watching images of the decimation on television, Berezowski was angered by the government's slow and uncoordinated response to the crisis. He vividly remembers a Swiss team of disaster search dogs being held up at an airport for three days due to haggling over immigration procedures.

Training to search for people buried underneath bricks and rubble. Rescue dogs rely on a special scent that humans secrete when faced with a life threatening situation.
"If Japan had trained rescue dogs on hand like in the United States and Switzerland, there probably wouldn't have been as many victims," he feels. "Although so prone and vulnerable to earthquakes, Japan lags terribly behind other industrial nations in disaster management."

Following the Kobe quake, Berezowski took Chewy to a rescue training seminar, where he learned that his pet's inquisitive nature and friendliness toward humans made him an ideal rescue dog. He thus decided to start serious training.

In 1998 he and Emiko traveled to the United States to obtain certification as rescue dog handlers. Their dedicated activities came to be recognized by local governments, and they now receive requests not just from Okazaki but also its neighboring municipalities and the Aichi Prefectural Government to help police and fire officers search for missing people. In October 1998 the association received a letter of appreciation from the Toyota Police Department after Chewy helped locate a young girl who had fallen into a river.

At present, the Aichi K-9 Disaster Search and Rescue Association has 16 members, including veterinarians and firefighters, and five rescue dogs--some still undergoing training. Every Saturday, group members participate in training sessions, often around dismantled homes, while Sundays are devoted to soliciting donations to cover running expenses. Its members, therefore, have hardly any days off during the year.

What are Berezowski's goals for the future? "I want more people to recognize the important role rescue dogs can play," he emphasizes. "And I hope to see every municipality, not just in Aichi but throughout Japan, have at least one team of rescue dogs on hand."

A pioneer in the use of rescue dogs in Japan, Berezowski is determined to push his cause not only from his adopted home in Okazaki but also on the international stage.

(Photos by Tadashi Mishima, Text by Masuhiro Tsukada)