A Blind Man, His Guide Dog and Lessons Learned On 9/11

Ten years ago, on September 11, 2001, I was working at my desk on the 78th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I stood up to grab some letterhead from the supply cabinet when I heard a tremendous BOOM! It was 8:46 a.m.

I was one of many thousands of people in the World Trade Center that day.

I had a good job that allowed me and my wife Karen to pay the bills and have a good life. But unlike almost everyone else in the building that day, I am blind and use a guide dog. When the terrorist-hijacked plane plowed into the building above our heads, Roselle was snoozing under my desk.

After the impact, the building shuddered and Roselle decided it was time to wake up. She emerged from under my desk, yawned, and quietly sat, waiting. Time to go to work. “Forward,” I said softly. Forward is used when setting off with the dog in harness, and it’s one of the very first commands all guide dogs are taught.

Roselle and I headed out of the office and navigated smoothly through the confusion, smoke, and noise.

Each tower had three stairwells. We ended up in the center at Stairwell B. Roselle was calm as ever and did not sense any danger in the flames, smoke, or anything else around us. I chose to trust her judgment because Roselle and I were a team. I clutched Roselle’s harness and with focus and confidence we headed down the 1,463 stairs to fresh air and freedom. We didn’t know that the worst was yet to come.

My life changed that day because of the beliefs and actions of a few zealots who though they had all the answers and who imagined the murderous violence that destroyed the center of New York City would bend the world to their will. They did not win, however. Love, trust, and teamwork did.

For the last ten years I have been sharing my story as a way to make sense of the attacks and devastation our country endured and to challenge people to move forward. In a way, the economic and political problems we are facing might sometimes feel like that hot, packed, claustrophobic stairwell laced with the overpowering stench of jet fuel. Here are some things that helped Roselle and I make it out safely.

Teamwork is crucial. When the heroes of Flight 93 banded together, created a plan and carried out that plan, they changed history and saved lives.

Ground Zero was the center of countless examples of teamwork as first responders and ordinary citizens risked their lives to find survivors and tended to those who made it out alive.

In the days and weeks after 9/11, we came together as a nation behind our president and supported his efforts to hunt down those who had attacked us.

But, somehow over time our sense of teamwork broke down, victim to the uncompromising divisions of our leaders with increasing numbers of us incurring debt and loss from which we may never recover.

I yearn for us to recover that sense of community forged in the fires of September 11, that sense of common ground and common commitment to keep our nation strong and come to reasonable solutions to our problems.

In the stairwell, we found ways to work together to hold back panic. We were forced to stop often and we took those opportunities to encourage each other with a quiet word, a joke, or a gentle pat on the back.

Roselle did her part, giving doggie kisses to each and every firefighter who climbed past us up the stairs. Most of us in that stairwell were strangers but we trusted each other, we worked together, and we survived.

Today it seems as if our leaders don’t trust each other and we as citizens don’t trust our leaders. To get out of the stairwell alive, as a nation, we must choose to trust those leaders who must also work hard earn our trust through wise and timely decision making.

But more important even than teamwork and trust is this: love. Jesus taught us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

After the terrorist attacks, love and good will poured out on us from the world over. Today, instead I see much animosity and hatred. No matter our differences, we must choose to love and respect those with whom we have disagreements. Debate is important and leads to wise solutions to our problems but it must be carried out in love.

I cannot help thinking of the loving bond I have experienced with each of my seven guide dogs. It is true that dogs love unconditionally so long as they are not mistreated. Even unconditional love by dogs will fade through constant mistrust and abuse. Love is a choice. We will never be loved by others unless we are willing to love first.

Ten years later, I know this. Sometimes the way is hard, but if we work together, we will make it down the stairs. Don’t stop until the work is over; sometimes being a hero is just doing your job. The dust cloud won’t last forever. Trust your team, keep going and look for the way out. It will come. Then, like Roselle, shake off the dust and move on. Forward.

Michael Hingson is the author of the new book, "Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog & the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero" (Thomas Nelson). You can find out more about Michael at http://www.michaelhingson.com. Follow him on Twitter @MHingson or on Facebook: Roselle the 9/11 Guide Dog.