Ten years ago, Guide Dog Roselle, a three-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever, was sleeping under a desk on the 78th floor of Tower One of the World Trade Center. Her partner, Michael Hingson, was preparing for a routine training meeting when he heard the explosion.
The date: September 11, 2001.
Stairs were the only way out. So Michael Hingson, who is blind from birth, worked in tandem with Roselle, taking 1,463 steps down 78 floors to safety.
I met Michael Hingson five years after the September 11 tragedy. He and I were in Raleigh, N.C., with our guide dogs, both of us presenting at a 2006 conference for people who work in blind services. Michael’s speech about experiences with Roselle on 9/11 wowed the crowd.
“You have got to write a book!” I told him at the hotel bar after our presentations. Michael is a good talker. Roselle was already asleep when we arrived. After guiding me to a seat at the bar, my Seeing Eye dog, a Golden Retriever/Lab cross named Hanni, had the good sense to settle in with her co-worker under our bar stools.
Sipping a cocktail, Michael explained how he’d left a 27-year career in high-tech computer sales and management to accept a position at Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) as National Public Affairs director. In a country where 70 percent of people who are blind are unemployed, his career path is miraculous enough, not to mention surviving September 11 with Roselle. He was quick to point out he’d already hooked up with the publisher of AKC Gazette to write his book.
Michael and I kept up via email after the conference, and when I finally got my courage up and asked how the book was coming along, Michael responded that “it just never came together.”
Enter Susy Flory. After contacting Michael last year about including his 9/11 story in a book she was writing called Dog Tales, she asked if he had any interest in writing a book. “She told me she’d be willing to help me with it,” he said. “It just clicked.”
Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero by Michael Hingson with Susy Flory was published by Thomas Nelson Publishers last month. One instance in Thunder Dog that really sticks with me is when Michael and Roselle found themselves in a subway station on 911. Everyone there had smoke and dirt in their eyes—they were all, in fact, blind, and each one terribly frightened of falling into the tracks. Poor Roselle, I don’t know how she could see or breathe, but she managed to guide all of them to safety.
Michael is traveling with his new guide, a yellow Lab named Africa, to promote the book for the ten-year anniversary of the tragedy. He says his Guide Dog’s spirit never diminished during their 78-story stairwell descent on September 11, 2011, and that spirit was evident during the six-and-a-half years the two of them spent together afterwards traveling hundreds of thousands of miles throughout the United States and the world to speak about trust and teamwork.
“If anything, Roselle’s spirit grew even stronger after 9/11,” says Hingson, who has left Guide Dogs for the Blind to start his own company, now speaking to corporations and organizations on behalf of the Michael Hingson Group. “I want people to understand that the real handicap of blindness is not a lack of eyesight, but a lack of proper education about blindness,” he says. And while Roselle is no longer with him physically, Hingson knows her spirit will always, always be with him. “She helps me be a better person today, and everyday.”
Here’s a video preview with Michael Hingson (and Africa) and Susy Flory:
UPDATE, 10/19/11: Michael Hingson's former Guide Dog Roselle was named top American Hero Dog at the first-ever American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards in early October. Each of the eight dog finalists received $5,000 to be donated to a charity partner, and Roselle won an additional $10,000 for Guide Dogs for the Blind. A TV special of the event, featuring Bark columnist Victoria Stillwell, will air on Hallmark Channel, Nov. 11 at 8 p.m. EST.
Beth Finke's book, Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound—about her bond with her Seeing Eye dog—won an ASPCA/Henry Bergh children's book award. Follow Hanni and Beth's travels on the Safe & Sound blog. bethfinke.wordpress.com