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Blind 9/11 survivor recalls escape from World Trade Center with guide dog

Monday, November 11, 2013 | 11:28 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Blind since birth, Michael Hingson sensed something was wrong when he felt the North Tower of the World Trade Center tipping on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Oh my god, Mike, it's burning," Hingson's friend and colleague David Frank shouted. "There's millions of pieces of paper flying outside the window — we can't stay here."

Hingson could hear debris falling outside the window of their 78th floor office. He didn't need to see to understand the chaos that was unfolding around him. He kept telling Frank to calm down.

That's when Frank used the big line, Hingson said. Frank yelled, "You can't see it, you don't understand."

"He's right," Hingson said. "I couldn't see it, ... but my imagination was much worse."

Frank's attitude is just one example of the misconceptions about the blind that Hingson is working to correct. He recalled his escape from the World Trade Center, as well as the obstacles he has faced in life and in business, to more than 35 people in Chamber Auditorium at the MU Student Center on Monday.

When the first plane struck the tower on 9/11, Hingson's guide dog at the time, Roselle, was asleep under his desk. Awakened by the thundering sounds of the impact about 15 floors above, the yellow Labrador retriever immediately went to work.

"Roselle and I worked as a team," Hingson said.

Roselle calmly followed Hingson's commands to navigate out of the office, down the hall and into the stairwell. Before long, many others were following the pair's path down the steps.

After descending to the 30th floor, Hingson's group encountered several firefighters heading up into the tower.

"The first guy said to me 'Hey buddy, you OK?' in this New York voice," Hingson said. "I said I was OK, and he goes, 'Well that's really nice, but we're gonna send somebody to getchya out."

He and the firefighter debated what to do for a few minutes, with Hingson insisting that he didn't need help getting down the stairs. He said he didn't care for the firefighter's forceful approach.

"I didn't need or want the assistance," Hingson said. "He really should have asked and not assumed."

Blindness wasn't the handicap, Hingson said. It was the firefighter's attitude.

"People have the perception that blind people can't do much and that they need help because they can't see," Hingson said. "The reality is that just because they can't see, it doesn't mean that they can't function."

He also resisted because the firefighter and his colleagues were a team, and he didn't want to be responsible for taking somebody out of the team.

"I knew there was a limited number of people going up the stairs, and I didn't want to be responsible for that when I didn't need the help," Hingson said.

The firefighter patted Roselle on her head — something Hingson said should never be done when guide dogs are in a harness —  prompting Roselle to give him kisses.

"That was probably the last act of unconditional love that he ever got," Hingson said.

The group continued down the stairwell and emerged from the building at 9:45 a.m., about one hour after the initial impact.

Hingson refuses to focus on the destruction of that day.

"9/11 was an opportunity to learn lessons about trust and teamwork," he said, referring to his journey through the building with Roselle and with those he encountered along the way. "It was all about working together."

Now, Hingson works as a motivational speaker, traveling across the country to share his experiences.

"I'm amazed by how many people want me to come tell my story," Hingson said. "My background is in sales, and for a sales guy to have someone on the phone saying 'We want you to come talk to us, we'll pay you to come talk to us,' that's as good as it gets."

Hingson visit was sponsored by the Student Unions Programming Board.

In 2004, Roselle was diagnosed with immune mediated thrombocytopenia, a serious disease in which her body attacked her own blood platelets.

After the diagnosis, Roselle continued to live with Hingson and his new guide dog, Africa, another yellow Labrador retriever. She was 13 when she died in 2011.

"Now Africa and I work as a team," Hingson said.

Supervising editor is Richard Webner.


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