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Keeping calm amidst the storm: Speaker recounts 9/11 survival story

Michael Hingson, who is blind, escaped from the 78th floor of Tower One on Sept. 11, 2001, with the help of his late guide dog Roselle. (Beth Leipholtz | Echo Press)1 / 2
Michael Hingson’s current guide dog is a 10-year-old labrador named Africa. After Hingson spoke, he removed Africa’s harness so the crowd could pet the dog. (Beth Leipholtz | Echo Press)2 / 2

Dogs play a vital role in Michael Hingson's life. The animal serves as his eyes, as Hingson has been blind since birth.

Hingson shared this at the Alexandria Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce's fall luncheon on Monday, Sept. 11, where he appeared as the guest speaker for the event.

In 2001, Hingson worked for high-tech manufacturer Quantum, which had a suite on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center's Tower One. On the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2011, he was preparing for a seminar when the first plane hit.

"Suddenly we heard a muffled explosion that felt like a thump," he said. "The building began to tip. It turns out we moved about 20 feet. If you had a spring and you fashioned it to a table and then pushed the top of it, that's what our building did."

Hingson's guide dog at the time, Roselle, remained calmly beside him as the tower swayed. Hingson says he knew he too had to remain calm in order to evacuate the building. He, Roselle and a co-worker named David began the 45-minute journey down the 78 flights of stairs.

"The job of a guide dog is not knowing where to go and how to get there," Hingson explained. "Guide dogs do not lead blind people around. Guide dogs guide. That is to say, I need to know where to go and how to get there. It's the dog's job to make sure that we get there safely by avoiding obstacles."

Along the way, the group encountered some panicked people and did their best to keep them calm.

"A woman near us on the stairs stopped and said, 'I can't go on, I can't breathe, I need to get out of here,'" Hingson recalled. "We stopped, eight or nine of us, we surrounded her and we literally had a group hug on the stairs. ... We knew we couldn't allow panic on the stairs. If we allowed panic to happen on the stairs, none of us would have made it out."

As they reached the first floor, emergency personnel directed Hingson and David to safety. Once outside, David watched the first tower crumble.

"It was eerily quiet," Hingson said. "David looked around and said, 'Oh my God, Mike, there's no World Trade Center anymore. It's gone.'"

At this point, the men still didn't know what had happened to cause the collapse.

"I called my wife Karen and this time I got through," Hingson said. "She is the one who told us how two aircrafts deliberately crashed into the towers, one into the Pentagon and a fourth was still missing over Pennsylvania at that time. That's the first time we heard what happened."

Hingson made it home that night at about 7 p.m. He contacted a guide dog organization he had been part of and let them know what had happened and how Roselle had played a role in his escape. Soon, he began received requests for interviews and speaking engagements.

Hingson agreed to tell his story. For the past 16 years, he has been speaking about the events of Sept. 11, 2001. He also wrote a book about the experience, called "Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero."

"If I can help people learn about blindness a little more and about guide dogs, help them learn about things that happen in their lives and share my experiences, I should do that," he said. "If I help one person in my entire life to look at life a little better, a little more positively, recognize that they can go on from changes they didn't expect, then it's worth it."

Beth Leipholtz

Beth is a reporter at the Echo Press. She graduated from the College of Saint Benedict in May 2015 with a degree in Communication and Hispanic Studies. Journalism has always been her passion, but she also enjoys blogging and graphic design. In her spare time, she's most likely at Crossfit or at home with her boyfriend and three dogs.

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