‘I still think about it every day’: Blind 9/11 survivor tours the Okanagan, shares his story
Imagine being on the 78th floor of the World Trade Centre the day the planes hit on September 11, 2001.
That is exactly the situation that Michael Hingson, blind since birth, faced almost two decades ago, alongside his guide dog Roselle.
“I still think about it every day,” Hingson said. “I think about how we, as a world, have moved forward and how we haven’t.
“How we still don’t work hard to understand each other and recognize it’s important to find ways to get along.”
The survivor credits his wits, leadership skills and being prepared for helping him escape the devastation of the terrorist attack.
“I had known, because I’d work there for a while, what to do in an emergency,” Hingson said.
“And when the airplane hit, the building suddenly started tipping and it actually moved about 20 feet and then it came back.”
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There was no question in Hingson’s mind – he needed to evacuate.
“We didn’t know what happened because the airplane hit 20 floors above me on the other side of the building,” Hingson recalled.
Along with his teammates and clients, Hingson led his guide dog down hundreds of stairs.
“We had people who were burned, burn victims, pass us on the stairs,” Hingson said. “There were a couple of times that people started to panic on the stairs and said ‘I can’t go on.’
“We would have a group hug and say ‘we’re in this together.’ There were several of us who were very proactive and we calmed people down.”
The group finally made it to the bottom of the building and out to the streets, only to be confronted by another crisis.
“A police officer yelled ‘get out of the way, it’s coming down’ and Tower Two collapsed right in front of us,” Hingson said. “Everyone just turned and ran.”
Hingson remembers being engulfed in the dust cloud.
“All the dirt and debris from the breakup of Tower Two,” Hingson said. “We tried to get out of it and we finally found an entrance to the subway system.”
How was Hingson able to keep centered?
“I was focused on doing what we needed to do to get out and get away from the area,” the survivor said. “I didn’t worry about ‘what if.’”
In the years that followed, Hingson has traveled the world, sharing his stories and teaching people how to overcome challenges.
He’s also working with new technology in the form of glasses that provide much needed information to the visually impaired.
“Four years ago, I was contacted by people from a company that has just started. It’s called Aira,” Hingson said. “It’s glasses with a camera – smart glasses.
“We can use those glasses with an app on a smart phone and we can connect you to an agent who is trained to describe information.”
The new technology is subscription-based, but Hingson is hoping more businesses will partner up with the company to offer free service.
“It’s all about information and that’s what Aira is all about,” Hingson said.
The survivor is in the Okanagan speaking to school children and adults about how to overcome challenges.
“I hope to get out there that blindness isn’t the problem, and that people will recognize that they should treat blind people the same way and expect the same thing of blind people that they do of themselves,” Hingson said.
“Mostly I hope to get the message, especially to the kids, not to underestimate what blindness is all about and to teach them that blind people are cool.”
There is one other message that Hingson hopes to communicate.
“I also want people to realize that you have control over fear in your life,” Hingson said. “You may not have control of what happens to you, but you do have control over how you deal with what happens to you.”
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