Michael Hingson needed to escape the north tower of the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a life-or-death mission that would have been harrowing for anyone even if he had eyes that could see.
But born blind, he managed to get from the 78th floor to safety with the help of his guide dog, a story of survival he shared on Sept. 14 at Princeton University.
Hingson, 68, was in Princeton for the Inclusion in Science, Learning a New Direction conference, a two-day event focusing on making science, technology, engineering and math accessible to individuals who have a disability.
In an auditorium at Princeton’s Andlinger Center, an audience listened as Hingson walked them through, one step at a time, how he made it out alive along with his then-guide dog, a female Labrador named Roselle, and David Frank, a fellow co-worker at Quantum ATL.
As a hijacked airliner was heading for New York, Hingson had commuted from New Jersey, where he lived, into lower Manhattan to be at work in the morning. He shared that how each day when he entered a building that stood more than 1,300 feet high, he thought to himself what would he do if there ever was an emergency.
He would not have to wait long for the answer.
He said that at 8:45 a.m., he was reaching for stationery, “when suddenly we heard kind of a muffled thud, we felt it, and the building then kind of shook and then it began to tip. The building just literally kept tipping and tipping and tipping. We literally moved about 20 feet.”
He and Frank were uncertain what had happened, later to learn the plane had hit 18 floors above them on the other side of the tower. At one point, the two men said goodbye to each other thinking they were goners, Hingson said.
“We stood there a little longer and the building stopped and it started coming back the other way, he said. “Finally, the building got be vertical again.”
His next step was to go into his office, with Roselle coming out from under the desk. Hingson said he had learned what to do in an emergency in the building, given that signs telling people where to go were useless to him.
Amid the chaos, Roselle was sitting next to him, wagging her tail and yawning, he said.
“That told me that whatever was going on wasn’t so imminent a threat to us that we couldn’t evacuate in an orderly way,” Hingson said.
The stairs would be their escape route. He detected the odor of fumes from burning jet fuel, leading him and others to assume the building had been hit by a plane.
As they made it down a floor at a time, burn victims passed them. Frank panicked at one point and said they were going to die, Hingson said.
“I said, ’Stop it, David,’ ” he exclaimed. “ ‘If Roselle and I can go down these stairs, so can you.’ It got him to focus.”
Frank was going a floor ahead of Hingson and calling out what he was seeing. He said by Frank doing that, “he became a beacon for anyone in the sound of his voice above him or below him.”
Firefighters coming up the stairs at the 30th floor offered to help Hingson, but he declined their aid.
“I didn’t want their help, I didn’t need their help,” he said.
For safety reasons, authorities would not let them go outside because people were jumping out of the building, he said. Some in the audience sighed audibly when he shared that detail.
“We didn’t know that, they just wouldn’t let us go,” he said of people jumping to their death.
Instead, they had to go through the central part of the World Trade Center.
One hour from the time the building was hit, they finally got outside. Frank pointed out there was a fire in the south tower, unaware that it, too, had been hit by a plane.
“We had no clue,” Hingson said. “We didn’t feel any explosion or vibration when Tower Two was struck.”
On the street, they paused as Frank took pictures with a camera and Hingson tried to call his wife, then a police officer said to get away.
The South Tower was coming down.
“Then we heard this sound that I describe kind of as a combination of a freight train and a water fall,” he said. “You could hear metal crashing down and glass clinking and then the white noise of the whole building collapsing. Everyone turned and ran in different directions.”
He never saw the dust cloud, but he said that with every breath, “I could feel stuff going into my throat and down my throat and resting in my lungs.”
Later, Tower One collapsed.
“To think we had just gone in that building three hours before to do our jobs, and now it’s all gone,” he said.
Hingson eventually would go to Penn Station to return to New Jersey, where he lived in Westfield. He hugged his wife. It was 7 p.m.
His story subsequently became a media sensation, landing him on the Larry King show and eventually leading him to write “Thunder Dog,” a best-selling book about the ordeal. By way of postscript, Roselle died in June 2011, nearly 10 years after Sept. 11.
“That’s our story,” he said. “It’s not the end of the story by any means, but that’s what happened on Sept. 11.”