Michael Hingson has been blind his entire life but is a prime example of someone who isn’t defined or hindered by his inability to see. His confidence and the lessons he learned from his first guide dog would help him excel professionally—and even survive a terrorist attack on 9/11.
Hingson, 70, who lives in Victorville, California, was born two months premature. The pure oxygen environment in his incubator damaged his retinas, leaving him blind. His parents discovered he was blind when he was four months old. A local doctor suggested that they send him to a specialized school and said he would never achieve anything. But his parents were loving, supportive, and expected their son to follow his passions.
“My parents raised me believing that I could make my own choices and do whatever I wanted to do,” Hingson said.
Hingson grew up like many typical kids. When he was young, he walked the streets of Chicago with his brothers and cousins, and once he and his family moved to Palmdale, California, at age 5, he rode a bike around his neighborhood. He went to public school, and participated in regular and advanced classes with sighted students. Hingson was also an Eagle Scout, and attended the University of California–Irvine.
“I just really didn’t even think about not being able to see. It just wasn’t part of what was an issue for me. I never viewed it as a limitation. I did what I could do and felt very comfortable in my own skin, so I grew up believing that I could do whatever I chose,” Hingson said.
Hingson said we live in a world that seems to be constructed around eyesight, but the problem is that sighted people don’t see the value of their other senses and don’t exercise them to their full ability.
“Blindness isn’t the problem. It’s the low expectations, the misunderstanding, and a lack of education that people have about blindness,” Hingson said.
Confidence and Teamwork
Hingson received his first guide dog, a 64-pound golden retriever named Squire, when he was 14 years old. He worked with Squire all the way through college, and the relationship they had taught him critical lessons that he carried with him even after Squire tragically died. Most importantly, Hingson learned how to build, and function in, a team.
The confidence instilled at an early age from his parents and the teamwork skills he learned from working with Squire helped Hingson thrive in his professional life and sales career. They also helped him survive on one of the most infamous days in modern American history.
September 11, 2001
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Hingson and his guide dog Roselle headed to work at the World Trade Center in Manhattan from their home in New Jersey. He had planned to get there early, but there had been a delay on the New Jersey Transit.
When they arrived, they went to the 78th floor, where he and his colleague David Frank prepared a sales seminar that they planned to give throughout the course of the day. After they set up their projector and other equipment, Hingson was reaching for a letterhead when he felt the building lurch and heard a muffled explosion. Then, the building began to lean toward the other tower. At first, nobody was aware that an airplane had crashed into the tower.
Hingson had spent a great deal of time learning about the layout of the building and the evacuation procedures.
“Lessons learned from flying on a lot of airplanes: Know as much as you can,” Hingson said.
Hingson had mentally prepared for an emergency at the World Trade Center, and that morning, his evacuation plan went into action. When the building corrected itself and was vertical again, Roselle came out from under his desk. He took the dog’s leash and commanded it to heel. At that point, the building dropped about six feet.
His colleague David Frank looked out the window and saw the fire, smoke, and falling debris. Frightened and panicked, he began describing what was happening to Hingson. Frank urged them to flee the building immediately. Hingson told him to slow down.
“He finally used the big line: ‘Mike, you don’t understand. You can’t see it.’ Well, the problem wasn’t what I wasn’t seeing, it was what David wasn’t seeing,” Hingson said.
Roselle, who was sitting next to Hingson, seemed unaffected by the chaos. The dog was wagging its tail, yawning, and seemingly wondering why it had been awoken from its slumber. Roselle wasn’t giving him any indication of fear, which conveyed to Hingson that the danger wasn’t imminent enough to not try to evacuate in a calm and orderly fashion.
Hingson eventually got Frank’s attention and focus, and they began to escort others to the stairwell. Survivors from the floors above passed them on the way down, some of them severely burned. Hingson just kept praising and encouraging Roselle because he wanted to keep his dog focused on the task at hand. Frank began to panic again. Hingson told him that if he and Roselle could escape, so could he.
Frank regained his focus, and walking ahead a floor below Hingson, began shouting out what he saw, which gave other people something to focus on and pay attention to, so they could keep calm on the way down. When they finally reached the lobby, they found themselves in ankle-deep water. Once outside, they began walking north. That’s when they saw that the second tower was ablaze.
They took shelter in a subway station, and when they emerged, they found that Tower 2 had collapsed. Shortly after Tower 1 collapsed, Hingson was able to reach his wife on the phone and learn about the terrorist hijackings.
Looking back, Hingson realized how his relationship with Roselle, his skills, and his ability to observe all came together to help him and his colleagues survive that tragic morning.
“It strengthened the relationship. It validated the relationship, and it validated all the different things that I had learned that led up to that day and that emergency,” Hingson said.
Hingson has continued his career in sales and has traveled around the country and the world to speak about his experience on Sept. 11, 2001. He talks about the importance of teamwork, leadership, and trust, all of which helped him and Roselle survive that day.
Hingson has also recently launched a program called Blinded by Fear. By developing a method to teach the techniques and mindset that helped him survive on 9/11, he wants people to learn how to control and manage their fears, and to use fear as a motivator instead of a hindrance.
“People are more resilient than they give themselves credit for,” he said.