Bethpage resident Julie Guevara, who was a first responder during the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, is now protecting airline passengers at one of the nation’s busiest airports — alongside her four-legged crime-fighting partner.
Gini-Gina, a 75-pound Belgian Malinois pooch, and Guevara, a canine handler at the Transportation Security Administration, cover several miles of ground daily during their 10-hour, four-day a week bomb hunting shifts at LaGuardia Airport.
Named after Gina Sztejnberg, who worked on the 96th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center and perished on 9/11, Gini-Gina is one of more than 1,000 TSA dogs at airports nationwide who uses her keen sense of smell to weed out dangerous combustibles.
On Tuesday, the agency showed Gini-Gina and Guevara in action, staging explosive scents on two people acting as travelers. Gina, as she's known at the airport, singled them out, trailing each before getting play time.
With a nose that’s a million times more sensitive than a human, Gini-Gina can detect as little as a few grams of explosives from up to five feet away.
“Gina could turn around and go well, that's chicken soup and she could tell you all the ingredients and all the seasonings,” said Guevara.
Before joining the TSA in 2015, Guevara was an emergency medical technician for the New York Fire Department and treated victims in lower Manhattan after two hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center. For several weeks after, she worked on the search and rescue efforts at the pile. It wasn't her first time dealing with terrorism.
Guevara also worked as an EMT during the first World Trade Center bombings of 1993, when Islamic extremists blew up about 1,200 pounds of explosives in a van parked in a below-ground garage in the north tower, killing six people.
She said that as an EMT she relied on her skills, but now she has to trust her dog's trained instinct.
“As a canine handler, it's all on my dog. I mean, I'm her partner too. I help her along, but she’s the one finding the explosives," Guevara said.
Explosive odors are heavier than air, dropping a trail behind a passenger that bomb sniffing dogs are trained to pick up on, Guevara said. About 300 dogs and their handler undergo 16-week training courses at the TSA Canine Training Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas yearly.
TSA Canine Supervisor Jason Chase said the program is important for the traveling public.
“We’re stopping energetic materials from entering the transportation system. We're kind of the last line of defense with that besides the screening workforce,” Chase said.
Gina can screen passengers, bags and venture beyond checkpoints into secure areas like the tarmac, cargo facilities, and planes.
If she picks up on possible explosive odors emanating from a bag or luggage, she is trained to follow and then sit near the bag and wait.
“She identifies the specific odor that she is trained on. If I suspect there is something in there, I have to call [the] Port Authority,” Guevara said. Gina then gets some play time with a ball as a reward, not snacks.
In the nearly five years they’ve been paired up, Guevara says Gina has sniffed out an average of one or two dangerous combustibles every few months.
“She's found fireworks. She's hit on bullets and gunpowder residue on people's bags,” Guevara said, adding she’s also tracked medications that contain the same chemical compound contained in some bombs.
After her shift wraps up, Guevara takes Gina back to her home.