By Michelle Mullins
Sometimes being a hero is just doing your job.
That's what Michael Hingson said of his guide dog Roselle, who calmly helped him to safety from the 78th floor of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Hingson didn't known what happened the morning of the terrorist attacks. Blind since birth, he sensed there was an emergency as he felt the tower tipping. He was used to earthquakes, being a Southern California native, so he said goodbye to his co-worker under the assumption that the building was going to fall over, he said.
Hingson’s co-worker began panicking about smoke, fire and millions of pieces of burning debris falling from the windows and yelling that Hingson couldn’t understand the magnitude of what was happening because he couldn’t see it.
But even though he could not see, Hingson said he understood what was going on.
Roselle, his guide dog, had not panicked, and with her help, Hingson and the people in the office began an hourlong descent down the stairs, leaving the building just moments before the first tower collapsed.
Hingson brought his story to Joliet Junior College Thursday, the day after the 12th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
While Hingson shared the story of the trust and teamwork of his guide dog that ultimately saved his life on Sept. 11, he also shared the story of how he got there to begin with.
“Blindness isn’t the handicap,” he said. “The real challenge is that people think blindness is a handicap.”
Hingson’s parents were told they should give him up shortly after he was born because his blindness was going to be burdensome. But his parents refused, and helped him as he faced stereotypes and discrimination during his childhood.
At one point, the school superintendent decided he would be unable to ride the school bus because he used a guide dog, which was discrimination and against the law, and his parents helped him fight for his rights.
Hingson eventually learned to ride a bike, went to college, obtained a master’s degree in physics, worked for his campus radio station and turned the tables on a group of college students who thought it was a good prank to hide his guide dog.
He became a successful salesman with the mantra that everyday he has to sell himself to others that he is a capable man. It was that mantra that helped him find jobs when the unemployment rate among the blind is more than 70 percent.
“I was different and I was going to face challenges in my life,” Hingson said, adding that there are always different perspectives.
“We should always be open to alternatives. Eyesight isn’t the only game in town.”
While Hingson spent his entire life proving himself and turning his liabilities into assets, he also knew that when he began working at the World Trade Center, he would need to know what to do in case of an emergency.
He put all of his life skills to use on Sept. 11.
At first, Hingson said, he called his wife to report there had been an explosion. At 8:50 a.m., he, Roselle and his co-workers began walking down the stairs.
The stairwell smelled as though it were an airport, he said. He realized he was smelling burning jet fuel and the building had been hit by an airplane. Burn victims were heading down the stairwell and many people were panicking, Hingson said.
One of his co-workers began reassuring everyone, heading down the flight of stairs and yelling up that everyone was going to be OK. Hingson counted each of the 19 stairs stairs between floors, focusing on Roselle. When they got to the 30th floor a half hour later, they reached a group of firefighters who were heading upstairs to assist the victims.
One firefighter stopped to see if Hingson needed aid, but Roselle kissed him and he continued upwards.
All the while, Hingson thought he would focus only on Roselle and not on the things he couldn’t control. Shortly after they exited the building, Tower Two collapsed followed by Tower One.
By 7 p.m. Hingson was reunited with his wife.
Roselle, who died in 2011, was honored posthumously by the American Humane Association as a hero.
Hingson said the terrorist attack is both a tragedy and an opportunity to learn lessons.“We had a lot of unity after 9/11, but we have squandered it away,” he said. “We are all in it together. We are all responsible for each of us, not just ourselves.”