A blind man, his guide dog, and their escape from the North Tower on 9/11

9/11: 20 years later

NEW YORK — On September 11, 2001, Michael Hingson and his guide dog, Roselle, were on the 78th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

Michael had been blind from birth. Roselle, a Labrador Retriever, was his trusted companion, there to guide him each day.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Michael arrived at the WTC Path Train Station from Westfield, NJ. He and his colleague, David Frank, were hosting a seminar in their offices at 1 World Trade and were in early to prepare.

Michael says he remembers ordering a big breakfast platter for his guests, including some of the best croissants New York City had to offer. After setting up the conference room, he sat back down at his desk, getting ready for his presentation.

Then, right at 8:46 a.m., a loud boom shook the building.

A Boeing 767, American Airlines Flight 11, had struck the North Tower, cutting through floors 93 through 99 at a speed of 500 miles per hour.

It was an instant inferno.

Roselle woke up and looked around. It was clear to Michael that she did not sense any immediate danger. 

Michael Hingson and his trusted guide dog, Roselle.

“Roselle was sitting, wagging her tail and yawning like, ‘Who woke me up?’ That told me that we could try to evacuate in an orderly way and panicking wasn’t going to help,” Michael said.

It was clear to Michael that his guide dog did not sense any immediate danger.

Determining that elevators were no longer safe, Michael and his colleague walked their guests to the staircase, came back and swept the office for any stragglers, and began making their way down the grueling 1,463 steps to safety. 

Up in Stairwell B that day, Michael said his prepared, steadfast mindset helped him stay calm. 

“When you go in somewhere, you do it from a standpoint of eyesight…you look at the signs,” he said. “Well I know that doesn’t really work for me — signs and I don’t get along very well. And so I spent time once I started going in to the WTC, learning the complex.”

In the staircase that morning, he recalls the distinct smell of jetfuel, and says that he remembers the air tasting like “a shot of kerosene.”

As people filed into the stairway, it was a mostly quiet scene. They all kept to the right. There was no pushing, no shoving. And, though they still had no idea what exactly was happening, they knew their best chance at survival was to move forward, one step at a time. 

“All the way down the stairs, the fact that I kept telling Roselle what a good job you’re doing helped a lot of other people, because they saw me focusing and being in charge of my situation,” he said.

(Photo by Franziska Krug/Getty Images)

Though tired, thirsty, and still in disbelief of what had happened less than 30 minutes prior, Michael, Roselle, his colleague, and their five guests all made it out of the North Tower alive close to 9:15 a.m.

When they got down to the lobby, both were met by a nearby NYPD officer — who warned the pair of the buildings’ imminent collapse — instructing them to run for cover. 

As they ran, Roselle guided Michael through the dust-filled streets of Lower Manhattan, eventually ushering him to safety inside a subway station. 

“She did exactly what she was supposed to do,” Michael said, reflecting that Roselle stopped by the stairs of the Fulton Street station to help them escape from the cloud of dust and debris after the towers fell.

A lone firefighter moves through piles of debris at the site of the World Trade Center in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. Two Planes crashed into the upper floors of the World Trade Center towers minutes apart Tuesday morning, collapsing both 110-story buildings. (AP Photo/Graham Morrison)

He never let go of her leash; she never wavered from her job.

That night, the pair returned to their home in New Jersey and Michael to process the inconceivable events of the day.

Now, Michael is a public speaker, a best-selling author, and works for accessiBe, a product that makes websites more accessible for blind people. He is their Chief Vision Officer. 

To this day, Michael says that Roselle was one of the most easy going dogs that he had ever known. 

She played when she could, and worked when she had to.

And she always took her job seriously.

Looking back, Michael says he is grateful for his four-legged guide dog, the one who kept him and others calm, while guiding her human down 78 grueling flights of stairs.

Roselle lived until age 14. She died in the summer of 2011, ten years ago. 

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