Michael Hingson was on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center when a terrorist-hijacked plane struck 18 floors above him on September 11th, 2001.
“The most powerful memory that I have is that when the building was struck, it flexed and tipped,” he said. “If you imagine a spring fastened to a table and you push the top of the spring, and then it comes back.”
Hingson said he knew immediately he had to get out. A challenge since he is blind.
“Staying calm and observing all of my surroundings to make the best possible determination of what to do sticks out,” he said. “Focusing on working with my dog, Roselle, working as a team to go down the stairs and to help other people go down 78 flights of stairs.”
Hingson’s guide dog Roselle was with him at work. With her help, Michael made it out to safety.
“Guide dogs do not lead blind people. Guide dogs guide,” he explained. “My job is to know where to go and how to get there.”
He said his blindness forced him to prepare for any situation. “I learned what to do in an emergency and I learned how to get around the World Trade Center,” he said. “People don’t know and learn what to do in the case of an emergency and power is knowledge.”
Although he had Roselle, “It was still an issue of me knowing what to do,” he said. “It’s all about teamwork.”
“Roselle heard from me constantly. ‘What a good dog. Good girl. Keep going,’ he said, describing the escape downstairs. “So I would not sound afraid because then she’d be focusing on watching me rather than doing her job because that’s the relationship we have.”
Although Roselle crossed the “rainbow bridge” in 2011, Michael said he keeps her memory alive by telling their story. He will speak at the South Carolina State Library in Columbia on Thursday evening. He will also sign copies of the books he wrote about their experience, Thunder Dog and Running with Roselle.
“We need to rely on each other much more than we do,” he said. “If you want to put it in Biblical terms, we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers and we should recognize that.”
“If September 11th taught us anything at all, it should be the power of teamwork,” Michael said. “It’s a negative example but think about what 19 people did to bring the world to its knees on September 11th. We all need to work more emphatically together to make sure not only that something like that doesn’t happen again, but that we improve and we become better for it.”
“The understanding that we all live in this world together and September 11th happened, in part, because we are not spending enough time understanding each other and accepting each other,” he said. “Normal will never be the same again and we shouldn’t be trying to get back to normal. We should find our new normal.”
While Michael tells his story of survival from a moment God selected him to be a part of, he also wants people to know that blindness is not a limitation. He was the Mid-Atlantic sales manager of a Fortune-500 company and managed the office in the World Trade Center.
“I want to help people to understand more about blindness,” he said. “People don’t understand that blindness isn’t the problem that I face. The difficulty that I face is the lack of understanding and low expectations that people have about blindness and blind people.”
“Blind people can just as likely be anywhere as anyone else and that’s because we’re just as capable of living in the world, functioning in the world and surviving in the world as anyone else is and people should stop underestimating people who happen to be blind just because we don’t have eyesight.”
“What happened to me really isn’t abnormal. It’s just that I happened to be one of the people who was there and people focus on me because I happen to be blind because they feel that that’s such a miraculous thing. It isn’t.”
Michael hopes his message will one day lead to an end to personal and institutional prejudice against people who are blind.
“The unemployment rate among employable blind people is over 65 percent. It’s not because blind people can’t do the job. It’s because people think that blind people can’t do the job,” he said.
Michael’s most recent guide dog, Alamo will accompany him to his appearance at the South Carolina State Library in Columbia Thursday. He will be out of his working vest and on his leash so he will be able to greet guests.
Michael Hingson is speaking as part of the library’s recognition of Blindness Awareness Month. The event is Thursday, October 18 at 6 p.m. It is free and open to the public. The South Carolina State Library is at 1500 Senate Street in Columbia.