On the 20th anniversary of 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks, the story of a miraculous escape

Twenty years ago, the 9/11 terror attacks wrought death and devastation, changing the world forever. Amid memories of loss, reliving the heartwarming story of a blind man and his faithful guide dog who negotiated him to safety that fateful day

That September night, Roselle, the yellow Labrador, woke up, shivering and yelping in fear. Like always, she had sensed that a thunderstorm was brewing, and her owner, Michael Hingson, had to take her down the stairs to his basement to shield her under his desk. Hours later, the guide dog would help Hingson, who was born blind, walk down the stairs to safety from the 78th floor of the rapidly disintegrating World Trade Centre (WTC) in New York, minutes after terror outfit Al Qaeda crash-landed a plane, American Airlines Flight 11, through tower 1 (North Tower). Seventeen minutes later, there would be another plane, United Airlines Flight 175, that would crash into the South Tower. Some 2,750 people died in New York and thousands were injured, the repercussions of that attack rippling across nations over the decades.

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A public speaker, Hingson is now busy creating a programme called ‘Blinded by fear’ to teach people how to control their fear and build trust and teamwork. Twenty years after that day of terror that changed global politics forever, the California resident shares the extraordinary tale of a blind man, a guide dog and a triumph of trust at ground zero.

The dawn of September 11 had broken out, pink and cool. It was an important day at work; as the regional sales manager for a data protection company Quantum ATL, he was hosting a trainee sales seminar along with a colleague from California, David Frank, at the WTC. As guests began arriving, they were ushered to the breakfast area. Roselle had been asleep under his desk when it began. “I guess most people say it was at 8.46 am.” The building shook and began to tip. Hingson thought it was the end. “We thought the building was going to fall to the street. Buildings like that are flexible as they are made to move around in windstorms. But certainly, nothing like this had ever happened before,” he says.

Roselle stirred when he went back to his office room.”I took her leash and told her to ‘heel’, which means to come around on my left side and sit.” Hingson could hear things brushing against the window and the panicked screams of guests. “David said he saw burning papers and fire. He told me, ‘Michael, the building is going to fall, we need to get out.’” Seeing Hingson still relatively calm, David went, “You don’t understand, you can’t see it”. But Hingson had noticed something that David hadn’t seen.

“Roselle wasn’t nervous. She was sitting next to me and not reacting at all. There was fire and things falling but it wasn’t so close to affecting her, which told me, we didn’t need to panic. We needed to evacuate in an orderly way. The problem with most people is they think that if you’re blind, you can’t do those things. To see isn’t just with the eyes. They don’t even imagine ever doing anything without eyesight. And so they fear being blind, fear going blind.”

When David went to escort their guests to the stairs, Hingson called his wife Karen. “I had woken her up and she had no clue about what was going on. It was just two minutes after the building had first started to tip.” He told her that there was some explosion of some sort. “She was alone at home that day, waiting to hear from me, watching television images, trying to process it. To this day, she avoids the 9/11 news flood,” he says.

Karen and Hingson had loved walking around New York City. “We would play tour guides and show people the city, going to St. Patrick’s Cathedral or walking down Fifth Avenue. We had a lot of fun doing that.” They loved the live Broadway musicals. Othello, played by James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer as Iago stick out in his memory. “It was one of the most powerful performances I had ever witnessed.” Another favourite is the actor Jerry Lewis’s Broadway ‘Damn Yankees’. “It’s a baseball musical. It was the only time Jerry Lewis was on Broadway; great that we got to see that”. Not long after 9/11, the couple moved to California.

On that fateful morning, at about 8.50 am, five minutes after the first plane crashed into the tower, Hingson and Roselle headed to the stairwell. He hadn’t had any time to collect much from his work desk, including his much-prized HP calculator that had been modified to talk. “I enjoyed that calculator. Unfortunately, I didn’t know it would be the last time I would use it,” Hingson smiles.

Not one to usually calculate the number of stairs – “that’s what the dog is for” – that day, to occupy his mind, he did. There were 19 stairs per floor, split into two flights, nine after a turn at a landing. “I figured out that we were going to have to go down 1,463 stairs approximately. Just mathematically it was a puzzle, so it gave me something to do.” As soon as he hit the stairs, an odour hit him. “I couldn’t place it immediately but it was something familiar.” It took him about four floors to realise that it was the fumes of burning jet fuel. “The same thing I smelt when I went to an airport. But no one could figure out what was going on,” he says.

Roselle, though, was still calm. “She would have sensed the fear in the people around us, so it was important for me to keep encouraging her and I did that. The other reason to do so was to convey to her that I was doing okay. Otherwise, she would be looking at me, going ‘are you okay’ rather than focusing on the task on hand,” recalls Hingson.

The job of a guide dog is not to lead, that remains the prerogative of the human. “Her job is to make sure we walk safely. And to stop if there are obstacles, or go around them. It is my job to direct the dog with commands,” says Hingson. Now and then, there were cries of “Move aside, burnt victim coming through.” After the second such call, a woman in the group froze, saying, “I can’t move. I can’t breathe.” A group hug and kisses from Roselle helped and off they plunged down the stairs again.

But David was in a funk by the time they got to the 50th floor. “He said, ‘Michael, we are going to die, we are not going to make it’,”. Hingson remembers telling him to stop, that if he and Roselle could go down, so could he. “That helped David settle down, he would tell me later.” David decided to give himself a task: that he would walk one floor ahead of them and call out what he saw. And, as he did so, it gave the others on the floors above them a sense of assurance.

At the 30th floor, David had more information. “I can see firefighters coming up. Everyone move to the side and give them space,” he said. Soon, a fireman stopped right in front of Hingson and went, “Hey Buddy, you okay?” Yes, I am fine. “We are going to send someone down with you to see you are okay” … “He just wouldn’t listen that I was fine and better off on my own with Roselle. The other reason that I didn’t want his help was because I knew they had to carry all of their heavy equipment up to fight the fire. They couldn’t leave the equipment up there. Because what if the floor you put the equipment on catches fire? So, they have to carry their equipment and I didn’t want to break up their team to have someone help me needlessly go down the stairs.” To break the impasse, Hingson had to say the words he dislikes to ever utter. “It actually took me to say, look, I got my friend David here who can see. So it comes back to that right. David could see so he could help me down the stairs. And that’s why the firefighter relented and let us go.”

No one in their group knew about the attacks, yet. By then, though, a strange calm had descended. “We helped people stay calm. I wasn’t getting nervous because Roselle wasn’t getting nervous. She is a very sensitive animal; dogs are. If she was concerned because there was fire too close, she would have behaved differently. She did not detect any danger to her, which meant that she stayed calm,” says Hingson. The calm shouts of “Good girl, Roselle, good dog,” continued down the floors. Firefighters stormed up. There was still, not a squeak about the planes. “What would have happened if they said, ‘Well, an aeroplane hit the building, it was a terrorist attack’? Everyone would have panicked. But I would rather have all the information. I’m not unemotional but I’ve learned to control what I think, and make, hopefully, better choices as a result. By that time, the other tower, too, had been hit. If we had known that it was a terrorist attack, when we got outside, we wouldn’t have walked past Tower two and been 100 yards away from it when it collapsed.”

Before that danger though, came relief. David had reached the lobby and shouted out that water sprinklers were on, creating a kind of a curtain of water across the doorway into the lobby. Hingson and Roselle ran out to meet David on the other side. David looked around and told Hingson that he could see the fire in tower two. “But we had no idea what it was from. Perhaps, when our tower had tipped, the fire jumped, we thought.” They rushed over to Broadway, deciding to walk towards midtown Manhattan to get out. But before that David wanted to take pictures because he had a really good view of tower two and Hingson tried to call his wife. He couldn’t get through because the circuits were busy. “I would later find that many people had left final messages to their loved ones and jumped out of windows,” he says.

All of a sudden, there was a rumble “that became a deafening roar of tower two collapsing 100 yards from us. And remember, it’s a 400-yards tall building,” he says. They were right in the line of the building had it tipped over. Luckily for them, it collapsed on itself. Hingson is a big fan of science fiction but this was dystopia playing out in front of him. He could hear cops screaming; a dust cloud had descended on the streets, showering debris. “It was so thick that David said he couldn’t see his hand six inches in front of his nose.” They kept running. “And I was listening on my right side because we were next to a building on the right.”

Roselle suddenly did turn right and Hingson heard an opening. “But she took one step and stopped.” Hingson urged her to keep moving but she wouldn’t budge. After investigating, Hingson realised that they were at the top of a flight of stairs. Good Girl, Roselle. They went down and found themselves in the subway system.”Michael, the towers … they are gone,” David would splutter out when they resurfaced. At 10.33 am, when Hingson finally got through to his wife Karen, she would tell him about the attacks. Karen’s childhood friend Tom would drive her to the train station soon afterwards to pick him up.

Back home, after a shower and dinner from their favourite Chinese place, Roselle bounded off to play with Hingson’s old retired guide dog. “Dogs don’t do what-ifs, you see.” Humans do, though. “I am not sure it ever totally sinks in, but that’s okay. I think I made the right choices that day.” Roselle and another guide dog, Salty, who had led their owners to safety, were awarded the Dickin Medal by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, a British charity, for their exemplary service that day.

Three years later, in September 2004, Roselle fell sick to an immune-related disease. “Toxins must have entered her system on 9/11,” says Hingson. She retired in 2007.

After the event, as America attacked Afghanistan and a wave of Islamophobia spread across his country, Hingson felt dismayed. He began reading the Quran to better understand the faith. “What happened on September 11 was not a religious event. It was an event where a bunch of thugs, with their warped view of Islam, did a very horrible thing. I do not believe for one minute that those people went up to heaven and had 72 virgins waiting for them. That’s not the way it works. God is the same God, whether you’re dealing with Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism… And people need to understand and gain strength from that and learn to stand up to these thugs, whether it’s in the Middle East, or here like we had with Trump who was spreading hatred,” he says.

When Al Qaeda’s founder Osama Bin Laden was killed in May 2011, NBC woke him up in the middle of the night with a question: “What do you think about him being killed?” Hingson smiles. “I always believed that there is justice. And I always believed that Osama would have to pay for what he did. Unfortunately, I didn’t think that it would bring closure, because there are other nuts out there.”

A month later, in June 2011, after 12 years of being together with Roselle, Hingson wrote a post, “My hero guide dog Roselle passed away last evening. I am sad, of course, as I will miss Roselle very much… Roselle, help us to be better people and dogs but most of all, be yourself, wherever you are.

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