WAWAKA, Ind. (WANE) — Around 2 p.m. on Saturday, Jan Harkner-Abbs received a call from a local fire department. An emergency management agency in Kentucky needed help after tornados had ripped through and devastated the area.
Without hesitation, Harkner-Abbs and dog-handler Jackie Harris started throwing their gear in the car.
“We dropped everything,” said Harkner-Abbs, the CEO of the Indiana Search and Response Team. “For almost 30 years I’ve watched these disasters happen and you know they don’t have enough resources, they need all of the help they can get.”
About eight hours later, the two women, along with two dogs, Rock and Jin, arrived in Mayfield, where a candle factory was destroyed. The four were met with a sea of debris.
“The devastation was immense. You saw houses that were completely gone, trees were flattened,” said Harkner-Abbs. Harris added that cars and trucks were “scattered like toys everywhere” and that is was “overwhelming.”
Despite this, they were immediately briefed on their assignment and got to work.
Their job was to make sure that there was no one else alive in the pile of debris.
“He was like super dog,” said Harris about their dog, Jin. “He’d just prance right at the top of the rubble pile, hoof down his chest and took inventory. It was beautiful what he had done. Jan gave him the command to work and he went right to business and did what he was supposed to do and was really, really good at it.”
Jin is certified through the International Police Dog Association in area search and disaster, according to Harkner-Abbs.
Around 2 a.m., they confirmed no one was left in the pile and went to sleep in their car for about four hours. When they woke up, they were assigned to an area about 30 minutes away. That’s when the mission became more of a recovery rather than a rescue.
They were helped by their dog, Rock, who is trained to detect human remains.
“We searched houses that they weren’t sure they had cleared. We searched a few small wooded areas, and then we searched a shoreline of a lake to see if we could pick up any human remains scent in case anyone was dropped into the lake from the tornado,” said Harkner-Abbs.
After clearing their assigned areas, their work was complete and they headed back to northeast Indiana. They said it was another team’s responsibility to clean up the areas.
According to Harkner-Abbs, the debris field was about 5 miles wide.
Both Harkner-Abbs and Harris said although it was exhausting, they’re proud of the work they and the dogs did. They also noted how critical it is to have emergency response teams in place.
“So that we can get to the situation fast, because that’s going to be the way we’re going to save lives,” said Harkner-Abbs.
Their hope is for everyone to keep the families impacted by the devastation in their thoughts, and donate to them if possible.
“Their Christmases are gone,” said Harris. “The kids, they don’t have anything. That’s not a Christmas for them.”