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1,463 steps to survival
Roselle, a yellow Labrador retriever with gentle brown eyes, slept peacefully beneath the desk of her owner on the 78th floor of World Trade Center Tower One.
Terrified of thunderstorms, Roselle didn't even flinch as American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the façade of the building, some 15 stories above, at precisely 8:46 on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
Michael Hingson, a California native, experienced a sensation familiar to anyone who has lived along the San Andreas Fault. Moments earlier, the office manager for a computer company was preparing for a meeting with field representatives and clients. Suddenly, he was bracing himself in a doorway as the 110-story building shuddered and slowly lurched to one side. The top of the tower reacted like a giant spring, unleashing its newly-absorbed energy before returning to a vertical position.
Born blind, Hingson didn't know at that moment what had hit the building or why. He didn't know about the terrorist hijackings or that another airplane was 17 minutes away from slamming into Tower Two.
All he knew is that he and his co-workers and clients had to evacuate the building in an orderly fashion.
The fact that Hingson was able to recount his tale during the second Alabama Assistive Technology Expo and Conference (ALATEC) is due in no small part to Roselle, the sleepy yellow Labrador who emerged from beneath his desk with her tail wagging.
A formidable team
Hingson spoke at Auburn University in May about the unique partnership between a blind individual and his or her guide dog. Hosted by Auburn University's Center for Disability Research and Service, the Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation and Counseling within the College of Education, the university's Office of Professional and Continuing Education and the Alabama State Department of Rehabilitation Services, ALATEC brings consumers and professionals together to learn about assistive technology available for individuals with disabilities.
"The federal government defines [assistive technology] as any piece of equipment or device that can improve the quality of life for an individual with a disability to allow them to be more independent,'' said Scott Renner, coordinator of assistive technology and innovation for the Center for Disability Research and Service. "It can be used in employment, education, recreation. When you look at assistive technology, sometimes people think of high-dollar assistive technology.''
In fact, it can take many forms, from motorized wheelchairs to Apple iPads to voice-activated computer software. In Hingson's case, assistive technology came in four-legged form. Roselle had been specially trained to respond, remaining calm and focused, to respond to Hingson's commands while also helping him avoid obstacles. If the handler serves as the navigator in the partnership, then the dog acts as the pilot.
"We are a team,'' Hingson said. "A guide dog and a person are a team. We each have a job to do and we respect each other's jobs.''
While assistive technology allows individuals with disabilities to lead more independent lives, Hingson said the tools can't be effective unless the users let go of their uncertainty.
"I use technology when I can to mitigate some of the challenges I face, but none of it means a thing if I'm not confident enough in my own abilities to find ways to make technology work effectively,'' he said. "Turn your liability into an asset.''
For most of his life, Hingson has met individuals who have misunderstood his blindness. What they assumed to be a liability, Hingson transformed into an asset long ago. He earned that management job in New York City because he was able to demonstrate that he could sell a product and provide service differently than an individual with sight.
"Throughout my entire life, I've had to sell just to be able to live and function,'' Hingson wrote in a job search cover letter. "I've had to sell to convince people to let me buy a house or rent a house or apply for jobs when they discover I'm blind …''
"I like to use the expression, ‘Don't let your eyesight get in the way of your vision,''' Hingson said.
Hingson enlisted Roselle's help to ensure that a lack of eyesight wouldn't preclude clear vision. After taking the job in New York City, he walked every corridor of the World Trade Center with Roselle at his side and participated in fire drills. He created a detailed mental map of the building, partly to ensure he could be a good host to any clients who visited his office.
Step by step
Moments after American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the north tower, somewhere between the 93rd and 99th floors, Hingson's co-worker, David Frank, looked out their 78th floor window and saw what looked like fiery confetti, thousands of pieces of 8 ½ x 11 paper scattered into a sky blackened by plumes of smoke.
Hingson picked up Roselle's leash and told her to heel. Hingson and Frank cleared the office, directing several people to the stairwell, and powered down their equipment before exiting.
It was 8:55 a.m. and the smell of burning jet fuel assaulted their senses as they began their 78-floor journey down the stairwell.
Frank went first, staying several steps in front to scout out any potential hazards, while Hingson followed with Roselle at his side.
Their descent settled into an orderly rhythm.
Down 10 steps and then a 180-degree turn.
Down nine more steps to the next landing.
Seventy-fifth floor, 74th, 73rd.
They reached a new landing every 20 seconds. They could still smell the fumes from above, but there was another noxious substance in that stairwell.
"The fear was palpable on the stairs,'' Hingson said. "The taste of fear was there. I knew it was important for me to sound calm and convinced that we were OK. I had to assure Roselle that she was OK and that I was OK.''
Down 10 steps and another turn. Nine more steps.
Soon, they heard voices from above. "Burn victim coming through.'' They cleared a path for the first of what would be several.
Hingson tried to keep his focus on the next step, the next turn, the next floor.
48th, 47th, 46th, 45th.
They encountered a knot of people who were suffering from the fumes and beginning to panic. Hingson attempted to lift their spirits with some humor. He was concerned that, if the power went out in the stairwell, he would be trapped behind a knot of sight-dependent people.
"I don't want anyone to worry. I'm blind. Roselle is my guide dog. We're going to offer a half-price special, today only, to get you out of here if the lights go out,'' Hingson told them.
They passed a group of firemen heading upstairs somewhere in the 30s. Hingson had to convince one that he could make it down the stairs unassisted.
More steps, more turns, more landings.
When they reached the bottom, after 1,463 steps, they waded through a torrent created by the sprinkler system and entered the first-floor shopping complex between the towers. They ran past the bank, the Radio Shack, the Hallmark store and the Godiva chocolate shop. They ascended an escalator and exited into sunlight.
Frank described the horror above, the inferno consuming both towers.
They kept moving, north on Broadway, on to Fulton Street and Ann Street. Frank stopped to take photos and Hingson tried to call his wife, Karen, who was home in New Jersey, but the circuits were busy.
Just as Hingson closed his phone, a policeman yelled, "Get out, it's coming down!''
Hingson heard a "deafening crescendo,'' a "freight train waterfall sound.'' The blind man and his dog started running south, chased by the rumble and the cloud of ash.
"We were engulfed in dust,'' he said. "You could feel it going down your throat and in every breath.''
Hingson sought refuge in the Fulton Street subway station and waited for several minutes with a small cluster of people. When they emerged, Tower 2 was gone.
Hingson was heading west on Fulton Street when, at 10:28 a.m., he heard that awful freight train waterfall sound again. After burning for 102 minutes, Tower One, the place where Hingson had worked for 13 months, succumbed to the heat generated by thousands of gallons of burning jet fuel.
He turned away from the building, covered his face and waited for the noise and the blast of wind to subside. The clouds of ash drifted for nearly three miles.
Hingson managed to reach his wife, make it to Midtown Manhattan and get on a train that would take him home to New Jersey. When he got there, he hugged his wife harder than he ever had before.
Sharing a story of hope
Hingson lost friends among the 2,752 people who died during the terrorist attacks on the towers, but the grief was eventually replaced by an unbreakable resolve.
"We're still here and we can't allow ourselves to be paralyzed by it,'' he said.
In 2002, Hingson joined Guide Dogs for the Blind team as its national public affairs director and shared his story on behalf of the school. Roselle earned the American Kennel Club's 2002 ACE Award as Service Dog of the Year, was praised for her heroism in the Congressional Record and accompanied Hingson during a Sept. 11, 2002 interview on "Larry King Live.'' Sprawled across the table on the set, Roselle yawned and lolled her tongue as Larry King interviewed Hingson.
Hingson will share their story in the book "Thunder Dog: A Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero,'' which will be released in August. Since forming The Michael Hingson Group in 2008, the author has toured the country as a public speaker and corporate consultant who emphasizes inclusivity, diversity and assistive technology training.
Through it all, Hingson has proven that individuals with disabilities can negotiate the most daunting challenges if they adhere to the strategy he and Roselle used to escape the World Trade Center – one step at a time.
Last Updated: Jun. 1, 2011