FOND DU LAC, Wis. (AP) — "Forward," Michael Hingson told his guide dog Roselle as she led him down 1,463 steps in Tower 2 at the World Trade Center.
Blind since birth, Hingson said his ability to maneuver through the sightless world was an asset on Sept. 11, 2001. As he stood in his office that morning on the 78th floor, the building shook and tipped in one direction about 20 feet. As soon as it righted itself, he grabbed Roselle's leash and thought about what to do.
"Roselle was yawning and wagging her tail so I knew we had some time to evacuate," Hingson said. "My friend (David Frank) said 'You don't understand. You can't see it,' but I didn't need to see it. I trusted my dog."
Hingson is author of the New York Times best-selling book "Thunder dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog & the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero." He spoke recently at Moraine Park Technical College about opportunities that can be gained from life lessons.
"No matter what happens with things we have no control over, at the same time we have control of our actions and the choices we make," he told the crowd.
At his feet lay Africa, his guide dog of five years. She replaced Roselle, who passed away in 2011, but not before receiving numerous honors for canine heroism, including the 2011 American Humane Society Hero Dog award.
Suddenly, the building dropped about 10 feet and there was a strong odor of jet fuel, he said, continuing his harrowing story. As Hingson and his friend made their way down the stairwell they passed burn victims and a woman who said she couldn't breathe or go on. They surrounded her with a giant hug.
"Then David began walking one floor below me and shouting up what he saw. It was a heroic gesture as he acted like an advanced scout — a beacon to the rest of us," Hingson said.
They passed firefighters at the 30th floor, ascending the tower. One of them bent down to pet Roselle, something one should never do, Hingson said. Never pet a guide dog in a working harness.
"It was the last unconditional love that firefighter ever got," Hingson said.
About 9:45 a.m. they finally reached the ground floor and headed out into the sunlight and away from the chaos. He describes what he heard next — the sound of the building collapsing — like a freight train and a waterfall.
"We were running south on Broadway, being hit by flying debris and engulfed in a dust cloud so thick I could feel it in my throat and lungs," he said.
Roselle stopped in front of a railing with steps that led down into the subway. Later, making their way along Fulton Street, they heard the second tower come down.
It wasn't until 7 p.m. that evening that he was able to finally speak with his wife, Karen. The next day Hingson contacted Blind Dogs for the Blind and told Roselle's story and that led to his first guest appearance on the Larry King Show. The story went viral.
More than 25,000 survivors escaped the towers that day.
"We should always remember 9/11 and learn lessons from it. That is all a part of moving on," he said.
Lion's Club member Ed Barnes told Hingson that people in Fond du Lac were the first to originate the idea of a heroes postal stamp commemorating 9/11. The stamp features New York firefighters and an American flag.
Lois Plum, on the committee for the local Books Between Bites group, said once she opened the book, she couldn't put "Thunder Dog" down.
"I tell everyone I know that they have to read this story," she said.
Hingson grew up in Palmsdale, Calif. Born two months premature, his blindness was caused by receiving pure oxygen in the incubator at the hospital. Doctors told his parents that it would be better to send him away. Instead his parents raised Hingson to believe he could become anything he wanted.
Ruth Smith of Fond du Lac said she had read the book and wanted to meet Hingson. Her son was also born premature, the same year as the author, but did not suffer effects from the oxygen because there was a leak in the incubator.
"There are just so many 'what ifs' in life. I loved the way he tells his story," she said.
The author earned a master's degree in physics and was working as a sales manager for a Fortune 500 company when the 9/11 attacks occurred. Afterward he became a spokesperson for Blind Dogs for the Blind.
Hingson is ambassador for the National Braille Literacy Campaign for the National Federation of the Blind and also serves as ambassador for the American Humane Association's 2012 Hero Dog Awards. He runs Roselle's Dream Foundation, proceeds from which help fund technology for blind children.
He points out that blindness is not a handicapped, referring to people who can see as "light-dependent."
Attitudes about blindness prevail. A total of 70 percent of blind people are unemployed, Hingson said, and federal law still allows employers to pay someone with a disability below minimum wage.
"Assume that I am capable," he said.
Information from: The Reporter Media, http://www.fdlreporter.com