Dakota, an American Hero

November 2, 2011  

A pit bull serves her country during the Space Shuttle Columbia recovery mission

By Kris Crawford

On Saturday Feb. 1, 2003, the world watched with horror, sadness and tears as seven astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia perished, a mere 16 minutes from home. This tragic loss elicited grief that orbited the earth.

As the world mourned, a massive recovery effort was underway to recover debris scattered across eastern Texas and western Louisiana. In addition to the shuttle debris, a recovery effort was launched to recover the remains of the astronauts of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

My pit bull search dog, Dakota, and I were chosen and deployed by FEMA and NASA on Feb. 3, 2003, to Texas as part of the elite task force sent to search for astronauts Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawa, Laurel Clark, Rick Husband, William McCool and Ilan Ramon.

We were there for 10 days and the pressure to perform flawlessly was incredible. We had a duty to bring our astronauts home; to provide closure for their families and to our nation.

Dakota, who was certified in live find, cadaver and forensic evidence search, was hand picked by both FEMA and NASA for this mission because of her proven search skills, professionalism in chaotic situations, her never-quit attitude, and also her humor and charm. What was also significant was that, at a time when pit bull bans were popping up across America, our government chose a pit bull to search for American heroes!

Dakota Gets to Work

The day we arrived in San Augustine, Texas, it was pouring rain with high winds and temperatures in the 30s. The search dog teams arrived in two vans, and as we gathered our gear and our dogs to unload, we could hear the crowd, the other searchers, the state troopers, the FBI, the NASA officials and more standing outside in the rain saying things like, “There are those special dogs that are going to find our astronauts.”

When I unloaded Dakota from the van, I heard several gasps and a lot of voices saying, “Take a look at that – it’s a pit bull!” A large crowd gathered to see the pit bull search dog. As Dakota and I walked to the K9 staging tent, the crowd split in half to let us by. “That can’t be a pit bull; she just got out of a van with five other dogs in it!” and “That can’t be a pit bull because she’s too friendly!” and even, “That can’t be a pit bull because they are only used for fighting!” I heard them all.

On the fifth day that we were there, Dakota and I had been in the field searching for several hours on an assignment in the cold, rain, sleet and wind. When we returned to the K9 search team staging tent, we were both shivering. As we began to huddle together around the propane heater, I heard someone walk into the tent. It was a NASA astronaut who also had been out searching all morning. He walked in and went past everyone to get to an empty chair, way in the back corner of the tent. He sat down, bent over and buried his head in his hands. A few moments later I could see tears dripping from his hands. Dakota saw this too. She immediately got up from her warm cozy place in front of the heater and slowly walked over to him. She gently slid her golden brown head under his arms and gave him a big kiss on the lips. He put his arms around her and just hung on and cried.

Dakota and her big wet kisses became very popular with everyone in San Augustine. Every morning people would stop at the K9 staging tent to greet Dakota and get their daily kiss. Those that searched with us would come back and tell everyone how tirelessly Dakota worked in the field. By the end of the first week, people were making requests to search with the pit bull search dog!

Honoring Our Heroes

Dakota not only showed everyone there that she was as good, if not better, than all the other dogs there, she also showed the world that, with hearts as strong as their muscular bodies, pit bulls can be productive members of society. One year later, at NASA’s anniversary memorial, Dakota was recognized and honored for her service.

Those of us that went on this deployment have memories that we will never forget. We trudged through pastures, forests and swamps, battled brambles, thorns, high winds and freezing rain. We became witnesses to a horrible tragedy. But we also witnessed the best of humanity as thousands of people came together in those awful conditions for a common goal – to bring these American heroes home.

On Feb. 1, 2003, seven heroes fell from the sky, and a pit bull was called to serve our nation: mission accomplished.

This account of Dakota’s work during the Space Shuttle Columbia recovery was originally posted at For Pits’ Sake.

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3 Responses to “Dakota, an American Hero”
  1. DaniGG says:

    Happy tears for Dakota. Thank you.

  2. Raiders says:

    Case name: Kristine R. Crawford Case number: SM341062ACharges:001 PC 508/487(A) 01 PC 17 002 PC 508Violation date: 09/28/2004PC487(a) – 1997.487a.

    PC 17 – Codifier for felony/misdeameanor.

    Criminal case docket information is publicly available. For copies of criminal files and related court records:

    San Mateo County Courts

    Superior Court Southern Branch

    400 County Center, 4th Floor

    Redwood City


  3. Adrienne Clegg says:

    Thank you for sharing Dakota with the world.