Like you I’m sure, I remember where I was when news broke on 11th September 2001 that the US had been the target of four coordinated terrorist attacks. We were in our office, sitting and talking while waiting for NTL to dial up and connect to the internet. My browser loaded first and NTL’s home page filled the screen with the news. We were all in disbelief. It just didn’t seem real.
On that day, 2,996 people lost their lives and over 6,000 were injured. Undoubtedly, events changed the world.
Sitting in an office on the other side of the world, you can empathise but you don’t fully understand what those affected went through, writes Kim O’Meara.
Many heroes were made on that day. From those onboard the hijacked aeroplanes who fought back, to firefighters on the ground in New York and civilians whose days began in the normal way but whose instincts to help others kicked in and they drove, walked or ran to help those in need.
Michael Hingson and his guide dog, Roselle were in their office in the World Trade Center when the 9/11 attacks took place. They survived, thanks to Michael’s instinct, training and his guide dog, who led him and 30 other people down 78 floors to safety.
Here’s their story.
Hi Michael. Thanks for your time today. When the plane hit one of the twin towers you and Roselle were at work in the World Trade Center.
What was your job at the time and can you tell us when you first noticed something was wrong and what you heard or felt.
It was around 8:45 AM. At the time I was the Mid-Atlantic Sales Manager for Quantum Corporation, a Fortune 500 company that manufactured data backup products for sale directly and through distribution to companies needing to keep records of all their computer activities. In our case that meant that we sold products to the financial companies in the Greater NY area.
When the aircraft hit Tower One I was in my office along with a colleague from our corporate office, David Frank. David and I had arranged for one of our distribution partners to bring in many of their NY-based resellers to attend seminars we would be holding throughout the day. The seminars were designed to teach these resellers how to sell our products.
As the local person, I would conduct the seminars and David would be discussing pricing and other relevant issues from the corporate perspective. David and I were finalising the list of attendees for the World Trade Center security people when we heard a muffled explosion, the building shuttered and then it began to tip in one direction.
What was Roselle doing?
Roselle was asleep under my desk: her usual position. During a normal day, Roselle stayed under my desk unless someone came into the Quantum offices. In that case, she got up and became our unofficial official greeter. After welcoming people, she went back to her spot under my desk to sleep until the next person arrived.
Had you and Roselle carried out much by way of safety drills around the building?
We did some drills, but the Port Authority did not offer many. However, I was the leader of this office and staff. It was my responsibility to know what to do in an emergency and also how to proceed. Whereas most people rely on signs and never prepare, I knew that if I were to do my job properly I needed to prepare. I spent time learning all I could about emergency procedures as well as learning about travelling around the World Trade Center.
Learning the complex served two purposes. First, I would be able to make split-second decisions on where to go in case of an emergency. Second, as the manager should I need to travel with my staff and guests to lunch or to go elsewhere in the complex it was important that I could lead the way just as any other manager would do. Hanging off someone’s arm wouldn’t do if two hours later we were going to be negotiating a multi-million dollar contract. I believe in leading and negotiating from a position of strength. Needing to be guided by someone else wouldn’t serve that purpose.
During your practice drills, what was Roselle’s job?
A guide dog’s purpose is to guide, not lead so Roselle’s job was to make sure that we walked safely. It was my job to know where I wanted to go and how to get there. I never allowed Roselle to memorise routes. In fact, I spent time walking in different directions to get to places inside and outside the World Trade Center just to keep Roselle and me at the top of our travel game.
Roselle was under your desk when you first felt heard the muffled explosion and felt the building tip. How did she react?
She stayed under my desk until after the building tipped and returned to its normal position. The last thing that happened is that the building dropped about six feet (my estimate). Actually, after the building returned to a vertical and before the drop, I called Roselle out from under my desk and commanded her to ‘heal’ which meant that she was to come around to my left side and to sit.
Dogs love unconditionally, but they do not trust unconditionally. That trust takes months to nurture and develop. Also, trust is a two-way street. We need to learn to trust our dogs as well.
After the building dropped David Frank looked out the window and began screaming that the building was on fire and that we needed to get out immediately. I could hear things falling outside our windows and realised that the burning materials and papers David described were what I was hearing.
I told David to calm down and that we would evacuate, but not to panic. Our guests began to scream, several early arrivals were in our conference room having breakfast which we had ordered. I kept trying to calm David and he kept shouting that we had to leave immediately. As I say in my speeches, 'you see what is happening?’. 'The sighted guy is shouting and panicking telling us to leave and the blind guy is saying calm down’. In reality, David was not seeing what I was observing.
Roselle is afraid of thunder. I had seen her fear on several occasions. When we were in the office and David was shouting Roselle was simply sitting and wagging her tail and yawning as if to say, 'what is all the fuss about?’. ‘Who woke me up for this anyway?'.
I learned a long time ago to observe what is going on around me. I knew the emergency procedures and I knew my dog. Roselle’s actions were telling me that no matter what David and others saw, Roselle was not sensing anything that caused her fear. That told me that we could evacuate in an orderly manner. That is what we did.
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How did your life change after 9/11?
The media heard about our story and my story, and Roselle’s went ‘viral’. I began receiving invitations to travel to different meetings, schools and events to speak about what happened to us, and to tell what I feel are the lessons we should learn from the events of September 11, 2001.
In early 2002 I was invited to join the staff of the school where Roselle was trained. I joined as Guide Dogs for the Blind as National Public Affairs Director and spokesman. My job was to travel and speak on behalf of the school as well as to continue speaking about my story. That job lasted until a new CEO joined the school in late 2007. In June 2008 my job at the school was phased out as the new CEO stated that no one was interested any longer in my story.
So I formed the Michael Hingson Group, Inc. and continued to have a speaking career. In August 2011, five weeks after Roselle passed, ‘Thunder Dog: the story of a blind man, a guide dog, and the triumph of trust at Ground Zero’ was published. In its first week out the book went to the New York Times Bestseller list.
So much for no one being interested in your story anymore! I know sometimes people say writing can be cathartic to work through experiences, did you find this true for you, whether with 'Thunder Dog' or your second book, 'Running with Roselle'?
I think there is some truth to that, but, in fact, by the time that 'Thunder Dog' was written I had retold the story hundreds of times in speeches and talks. I had written down much material over the years that Susy Flory and I used in the book long before the writing began. Even so, every telling of the story helps me move on.
I love to say that no matter what anyone says about the media, for me, having hundreds of interviews after September 11 is the most important thing that helped me to move on. I was asked questions from the most stupid and innocuous to the most intelligent and thoughtful. Every question helped me move on.
I’m sorry to hear she passed away six years ago, she continued to live with you after retiring, didn’t she. How did Roselle’s life change after 9/11? Did events change her at all?
Roselle continued to guide until 2007. She did not change. I asked doctors about how Roselle would handle the events of that day. Since she was not directly attacked, they told me, and since dogs do not do 'what if', what happened simply just was part of a day in her life. She forgot it and moved on.
How does it feel having put your life in a dog’s hands and had them pull through for you as she did? Before 9/11, did you ever imagine you would need Roselle under these circumstances?
Of course, both of us put ourselves in the other’s hands. She saves my life every day and I save hers as well. A guide dog and its handler are an extremely close team or should be.
We work together to accomplish a task; walking and travelling about. Both team members are important to the task. Again, a guide dog does not lead, it guides. Sighted people want to over emphasise and dramatise what a guide dog does because they do not truly have an understanding of what blind people can do. The expectations that society have for blind people are terribly low. They want to think that the dog does everything that keeps a blind person going. This is not true. As a team, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
What do you see as your life’s purpose now?
I believe my job is to continue to tell my story, teach the lessons of September 11, and to inspire people to do better and adapt to our increasingly changing world. We may not be responsible for nor have control over changes that happen in our lives, but we have total control over how we choose to deal with the changes.
Pictured above and below, Michael and Roselle meeting American Ambassador Mr Charles Swindells in New Zealand
Aside from being a dog lover and assistance dog owner, what do you think is the biggest lesson we can learn from man’s best friend?
We underestimate these dogs. They love unconditionally, but they do not trust unconditionally. That trust takes months to nurture and develop. Also, trust is a two-way street. We need to learn to trust our dogs as well. Most people do not really do that. Dogs are not as dumb as we think.
Many thanks Michael.