Imagine walking down 78 flights of stairs – 1,463 individual steps. You are in imminent danger as you walk, unsure whether you can make it out of the building before it collapses or explodes. Struggling for each breath, you smell the heavy stench of jet fuel. Plus that, imagine you are blind.
This was the reality for Michael Hingson Sept. 11, 2001, the day the World Trade Center collapsed. He survived with the help of his guide dog, teamwork and help from God.
Growing up blind
At Hingson’s birth, the doctor recommended his parents put him in a home for children with disabilities. His parents resisted and raised him just as his sighted brother – allowing him to roam the neighborhood, ride bikes and build radios. They fought to keep him in standard schools. They accepted blindness as a physical characteristic much like being left-handed, not a tragic handicap.
Raised in a Christian home, he was given a Braille Bible when he was 8 years old that he still has. He and his dad “had a lot of talks about Christianity, and read ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ by Fulton Oursler together.”
Hingson learned strategies for dealing with his challenges. He mastered echolocation (using sound to locate objects) and practiced algebra in his head while other students participated in any activity that required sight.
When he was 14, he got Squire, his first guide dog. They became inseparable and attended high school and UC Irvine together. After Squire’s death, Hingson had three more guide dogs before Roselle, his companion on 9/11.
The fateful day
Hingson was preparing for a meeting the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when he heard an explosion. He could feel the building lean over, then right itself. He and a colleague, David Frank, were in the office.
Hingson was able to stay calm because Roselle stayed calm. He followed the emergency drill directions — avoid the elevator and head to the stairs.
Through falling debris and jet fuel fumes, Roselle led Hingson and 30 others down 78 flights out to safety. Minutes after the group exited the building, Tower Two began to collapse.
“We ran. I lost Frank. I thought, ‘God, I can’t believe you got us out of the building just to have it fall on us.’
“Then I heard as clearly as you hear me now: ‘Don’t worry about what you can’t control, focus on running with Roselle and the rest will take care of itself.’
“Immediately, I had the conviction that if we worked together we would be OK. We ran and caught up with Frank.
“I could have ignored that voice. I could have done any number of things, but I did what God said. Roselle and I worked together, and we made it out OK.”
Everyone should focus more on listening to God rather than just talking at Him. That is how we learn God’s purpose, according to Hingson. He believes God directs and expects us to understand. We have to look for guidance, not just do our own thing.
Challenges lead to purpose
Hingson gained an unexpected platform to educate people about blindness and the importance of teamwork.
“My purpose,” said Hingson, “is to help people learn teamwork, learn to trust each other and to live by example.”
He has had countless interviews, appeared on “Larry King Live” five times and written two books – “Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust” (Thomas Nelson, 2012) and “Running with Roselle: How a Blind Boy and a Puppy Grew Up, Became Best Friends, and Together Survived One of America’s Darkest Days” (Roselle’s Dream F, 2013). Hingson worked as a spokesperson for Guide Dogs for the Blind for six and a half years and serves as a motivational speaker to businesses and social clubs.
According to the Social Security Administration, the unemployment rate among employable blind people is higher than 70 percent.
“Not because blind people can’t work,” Hingson said, “It’s because people think blind people can’t work.”
Hingson argues that blindness is not an insurmountable handicap. In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, he explained, “Blindness isn’t the handicap – the handicap is our attitudes and misconceptions about blindness.” He pointed out that sighted people also have a handicap: They are light dependent.
“Everyone is challenged. We must find ways to work around our challenges,” Hingson said.
“God gives us opportunities. If we accept, then God will make it happen. I never thought I would become a public speaker, but that’s an opportunity God gave me and I chose to take it.”
Skip Vaccarello is a longtime Los Altos resident and founder of a new website, Finding God in Silicon Valley. For more information, visit findinggodinsiliconvalley.com.
For more information, visit michaelhingson.com and read his books.