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9/11 survivor shares his story of escaping with service dog to keep lessons from the day alive

911 survivor
Posted at 10:23 AM, Sep 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-10 13:23:41-04

“On September 11, it was a typical day," recalled Michael Hingson.

For many people who think back to 9/11, it is the images that define much of their memory.

“I was reaching for letterhead when I heard kind of a muffled explosion and the building began to shake," Hingson said. "It literally began to tip going in one direction, and that was certainly not something that we would expect.”

For Hingson, who was born blind, etched into his mind is what he heard, sensed, and felt that morning.

“The biggest problem I face in the world isn’t that I'm blind. It’s that because I’m blind, people don’t think I can do stuff," Hingson said.

On September 11, 2001, Hingson was preparing to lead a seminar at his office in the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

“We were on the southside of the building on the 78th floor, the airplane hit on the 96th floor," Hingson remembered.

Hingson went to evacuate. By his side was his guide dog, Roselle.

“Roselle wasn’t giving me any indication she was nervous," Hingson said. "We key off each other, we feed off each other, and the very fact she wasn’t nervous at all, that told me that we had time to try and evacuate in an orderly way.”

It was too risky for them to take the elevators, so they went to the stairwell.

“Almost immediately, getting to the stairs, I smelled something and I couldn’t place it, but it was familiar. It took me about four floors until I realized what I was smelling was burning jet fuel," Hingson said.

Nearly 80 stories of stairs stood between them and safety.

“I kept saying to Roselle, ‘Good dog, what a good girl, keep going. What a good puppy,’" Hingson said.

Survivors later told him, just the sight of him and Roselle encouraged them to keep going.

“We saw you going down the stairs and talking to Roselle and clearly you guys didn’t have any problem with what was going on, so we followed you down the stairs," Hingson said of what people told him.

It took them 45 minutes to get down. Not long after they walked out of the North Tower. The World Trade Center's South Tower collapsed.

“A police officer yelled, ‘Get out of the way; it’s coming down right now!” Hingson said. “The best way to describe, to give you an image of it, a freight train and a waterfall. You could hear metal flattening like a freight train, glass tinkling and breaking, and this white noise of a waterfall pancaking straight down. With every breath I took, I could feel dirt and junk and debris going down my throat and into my lungs and settling.”

Hingson and Roselle made it home safely that day. It wasn't until he turned on the radio did he learn what the rest of the world already knew at that point: terrorism.

“It was just crazy we had no clue until then," Hingson said.

In 2011, Roselle passed away. That year, Hingson wrote a book titled Thunder Dog, which is about Roselle and himself. It became a New York Times’ best seller.

Today, Hingson travels as a speaker, giving speeches at companies and schools.

“If it would help people understand the World Trade Center, if it would help people understand blindness and guide dogs," Hingson said of his work.

For a growing number of Americans, the story of 9/11 is one learned in a book or online.

“It’s not just students, if you think about it. Unless you were 7 or 8, probably even older, you really probably don’t have a lot of memories of that day," Hingson said.

It is for reasons like that, Hingson continues to share his story. A story that two decades later, carries a meaning too important to lose.

“As long as I have anything to say about it, I’ll tell the story and try to use it as a mechanism to teach people that we can be stronger when we collectively work together," Hingson said.