Saturday, September 10, 2011

Michael Hingson, who is blind, and his guide dog made it safely down more than 1,000 stairs on Sept. 11, 2001, and now he has new best-selling book about that day and his life, Thunder Dog

From Novato Patch in California:

Michael Hingson didn’t set out to be a celebrity, especially not for the reason for which he’s become internationally known. But he’s perfectly OK with the fact that he’s The Blind Guy Whose Guide Dog Led Him Down 1,463 Stairs at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

“Because our story has been very visible, I’ve gotten e-mails from blind people who have said, ‘Because of you, I am doing more than I thought I could ever do,” Hingson said, “so there have been some positives.”

Surviving the terrorist attacks was not even his first miracle accomplishment, though. In his new book, the Bel Marin Keys resident tells his 9/11 story piece by piece while mixing in his broader message — that the blind can thrive and that hope will always prevail.

Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog & the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero, co-written by Castrol Valley author Susy Flory, was released on Aug. 2 and one week later found itself on the New York Times bestseller list, placing in the e-book category, nonfiction hardcover and combined e-book/nonfiction. The memoir has remained on the list for the past five weeks. (Check out this feature on Castro Valley Patch about Susy Flory.)

“It’s not really a 9/11 book,” Hingson said. “It’s my life story with 9/11 as a backdrop. It talks about growing up as a blind person. What’s really important is why I was there (in the World Trade Center), how I got there at that point of my life and the fact that other blind people can accomplish the same things given the right opportunities.”

Hingson, 61, grew up in Palmdale, Calif., graduated from the University of California Irvine with a master's in physics and had a 27-year career in computer sales, a job that led him to a position in New York City. He and his wife, Karen, lived in Westfield, N.J., and Michael worked on the 78th floor of Tower One at the World Trade Center. His guide dog, a yellow lab named Roselle, was always at his side.

Karen Hingson said she was watching ABC's Good Morning America on the Sept. 11, 2001, when it became apparent that something was wrong. Michael called her after the first plane struck the other tower, but he didn’t know that had happened — he just knew papers and debris were flying everywhere. Michael and the other workers started their trek down the stairwells still not knowing about what happened.

“I didn’t hear from him for 2 ½ or three hours,” Karen said.

Michael, Roselle and hundreds of others made their way down the stairwell to the chaos down on the streets.

“Walking down those stairs — that’s not the dramatic part of the story,” Michael said. “I was only 100 yards away when Tower 2 collapsed.”

Karen didn’t know what to think during those next few hours.

“He called me again when they stopped to rest at a Chinese restaurant,” she recalled.

Michael, who made it home by train at about 7 p.m. that night, subsequently became a sought-after guest on TV shows and the subject of countless written accounts.

He was in New York City this week for a speaking engagement but plans to be in Port Arthur, Texas, for a ceremony on Sunday, the 10th anniversary of the attacks. He has nine speaking engagements lined up around the country over the next two weeks, and he’ll be talking to the Novato chapter of Soroptimist International on Oct. 5 (here are details; the club welcomes both women and men).

Roselle, a finalist in the 2011 American Humane Association's American Hero Dog Awards, died in June at the age of 13, but her memory lives on in both the book and a foundation Hingson has started in her honor. Roselle's Dream Foundation works to assist blind children and adults in obtaining new technologies.

“It was his eighth dog, so unfortunately we get used to it,” Karen said of Roselle's passing. “It would have been nice for her to get some of the acclaim that is due her, but it’s better that she wasn’t in pain.”

With his new dog, Africa, Michael Hingson makes a living consulting and as a keynote speaker. He has traveled the world, but also made dozens of appearances around Novato, where he and his wife, Karen, have lived since 2002. Hingson spent 6 ½ years working for Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael prior to starting his own company, the Michael Hingson Group. Karen helps with the accounting side of Michael’s business and also is a professional quilter, running

“We like that is very peaceful and very quiet out in Bel Marin Keys,” he said.

In addition to telling his 9/11 story, Michael Hingson advocates on behalf of the blind to secure more opportunities for job training and to neutralize the stigma of blindness.

“I hope the book is seen as a tool for overall social change,” he said. “Unemployment is over 70 percent among blind people, and that’s because people think sight is the only game in town. Most people think I’m a passive hanger-on at the end of a guide dog’s harness.

“Blindness isn’t the handicap. It’s the attitude and misconceptions that people have about blindness that is the handicap. Thunder Dog is really trying to deal with that and give it some exposure.”