On September 11, Michael Hingson escaped the 78th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Minutes later, the South Tower collapsed within 100 feet of him. It is a miracle that anyone could survive such horrific odds. Yet, Hingson is alive today thanks to a dog named Roselle. A guide dog who led her blind master from a burning building, down 1,463 steps, through a choking cloud of debris - to safety. Their remarkable story is told in Hingson's 10th anniversary release, Thunder Dog.
Can a blind man have the wherewithal to offer a detailed account of such a history-changing event? Absolutely. While unable to visually see what was going on around him, Hingson gives a fact-filled, accurate testimony of what went on inside the North Tower and in the streets of lower Manhattan that day. He recounts how upon impact he felt the North Tower shudder violently and slowly tip to the southwest. How he recognized the scent of jet fuel long before he learned a plane had crashed into the building. How he heard the heavy breathing of those rushing a burn victim down the left side of the stairs. How the railings began to feel warm to the touch as the thousands fleeing began to sweat profusely in the confined stairwells. How he trudged through water ankle deep while making his way through the lobby. How the encroaching plume of debris literally smothered him as he gasped for breath. Regardless of sight, his observations are acute, precise and vividly depicted.
What most stands out about Hingson is that he is incredibly tough. Even before 9/11, setting out at 6 a.m., he would take a cab, then a train, then an escalator, then an elevator before reaching his World Trade Center office every morning. Not to mention, he would be traveling into New York City, one of the busiest places in the world. And he would do all of this on a daily basis in the dark with a white cane in one hand and Roselle's harness in the other. That alone is extraordinary. Knowing what their teamwork and trust accomplished on 9/11 makes their partnership one for the ages.
Roselle, herself, showed a remarkable ability to stay focused under extreme pressure. The night before, she quivered in fear during a thunderstorm, thus earning the moniker - "thunder dog." However, the next morning she performed beyond any trainer's wildest expectations. She breathed in smoke and noxious fumes. She was, for the most part, without water. She, herself, was blinded in the dust cloud. Yet she continued doing her job until she brought her master back to their home in New Jersey. Through fatigue, panic and unbearable physical conditions, she persevered.
The book is divided into 14 chapters that are each partitioned into sections related to Hingson's blindness interspersed with his 9/11 account. Throughout, he drives home the point that he doesn't consider his blindness a disability, but rather the innate prejudice he encounters in a world dominated by the sighted. For example, a fireman tries to persuade Hingson into accepting help in order to descend the remaining stairwells, but Hingson held his ground saying he was able to manage on his own. Over the course of his life, he has even driven a car, obtained a master's degree in physics and flown an airplane. This is a man who refuses to be defined by his physical limitations.
Above all, the light touches are what make this book accessible. While trying to get north of Canal Street after the collapse, Hingson stops with his friend and colleague, David Frank, at a Vietnamese restaurant for a much needed bowl of soup. A van driven by a group, that doesn't speak much English, gives them a ride to the apartment of Frank's friend. On the final leg of his journey home, his fellow PATH train passengers besiege him with questions after noticing that he and Roselle are covered in dust. Finally around 7 p.m., he is able to embrace his wife, Karen (who happens to be paralyzed from birth) after a few frantic, sporadic phone calls throughout the day. Waking the next morning, he is emotionally numb and physically sore from the ordeal, yet agrees to appear on Larry King Live just days after the attack.
Hingson's account doesn't end there. He relates how his company just did not understand the trauma that survivors, family members of the deceased, those living in the New York area, etc. continued to experience months after the attack. They berated him for low sales figures regardless of the fact that not many people were interested in buying computer security systems in late 2001. Instead, many were attending several funerals a day. The push to return to normal was made too soon. People needed more time to recover and cope with this new reality. In response, Hingson made the decision to move to California and take a lower salary position at Guide Dogs for the Blind. He realized his priorities had shifted, and the demands of a high stress, high profile job just didn't complete him the way it used to.
Above all, Hingson stakes his life after 9/11 in hope. He was not afraid to take a different direction and try something new. At first reluctant to talk about his experience, he later reached out to people interested in hearing his story by becoming a public speaker. While he discusses what happened to him that day, he also uses his new found notoriety as a platform to advance the cause of blind people everywhere. Through education, he hopes to encourage others to view blindness in a whole new light. He feels that teamwork - whether it be between a blind man and his guide dog or a nation struggling through tragedy - is the only way to move forward since the future is hidden in shadow for everyone.
Overall, a remarkable 9/11 memoir shows how a life of blindness prepared a man to trust his dog when it mattered most.
Thunder Dog by Michael Hingson is available for $22.99 at Amazon.com and at the MichaelHingson.com.
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