The lights were turned off. “Amazing Grace” was playing on the audio system. People in the Chroma conference room at Big Springs Industrial Park in Maryville were singing softly along to the spiritual music.
From behind a curtain, into the pitch-black room, a surprise guest speaker stepped up to the lectern, unseen by the gathered Chroma employees and guests.
The lights came on. Standing there was author Michael Hingson, whose book “Thunder Dog” hit No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list for nonfiction e-books on Oct. 2.
Despite the lights, for Hingson it was still dark — always is.
He has a saying, a bit of advice he offers to sighted people that applies to his own life: “Don’t let your sight get in the way of your vision, because eyesight isn’t the only game in town.”
The complete title of his book is “Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero.”
Hingson kept his audience enthralled for nearly two hours. First, he talked about his own personal history:
How he was born prematurely in 1950, losing his sight because the hospital did not understand the blinding effect on a preemie who continually breathes pure oxygen in an incubator.
How his parents, with eighth-grade and high-school educations, refused a doctor’s advice to send their blind baby away to an institution to live.
How he was helped at kindergarten in Chicago, where he was first taught the elementary basics of Braille.
How, thanks to his father’s instruction, he could do algebra in his head when he was 6 years old.
How as a kid he routinely rode his bike around the neighborhood — to the dismay of a neighbor — and even back and forth to school.
How, when he graduated from junior high school, he applied for and received a four-legged teammate from Guide Dogs for the Blind, a golden retriever named Squire.
How a school system superintendent in California had him kicked off the school bus because he rode with his guide dog.
How his parents fought back, and a letter from his father to California Gov. Pat Brown resulted in the superintendent being summoned to the state capital. Soon young Mike was back on the bus.
How his father, who researched the law on the rights of people who use guide dogs, taught him a lesson from that victory: “You can fight city hall and win.”
How he earned a Master of Science at the University of California, Irvine, despite the prejudice of a faculty member who did not believe a blind person to be capable of earning an advanced physics degree.
How he helped lead the fight to require insurance companies offer policies to blind people for one simple reason: Blind people are at no greater risk of filing claims than are sighted people.
How, as a manager in sales, he had responsibility for 18 percent of total sales of a Fortune 500 company.
World Trade Center
Hingson was assigned to the company’s New York office. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was in the office with his colleague David Frank on the 78th floor of Tower One of the World Trade Center.
“At 8:45 I was reaching for stationary, when suddenly we heard a muffled explosion. The building shuddered,” Hingson said. “It started to tip, and it just kept tipping and tipping and tipping and tipping and tipping and moving.”
He later learned the building’s expansion joints were absorbing the crash of the jet that terrorists had slammed into Tower One. At the time, no one in the office knew what was happening.
Frank was alarmed by what he was seeing. Hingson recalled Frank’s anxious words: “Oh, my God! There’s fire and smoke. There’s millions of pieces of burning paper falling outside the window. We’ve got to get out of here right now!”
Hingson could hear the debris falling, but he was comforted by a calm Roselle. She had been asleep under a desk. Now she was standing, wagging her tail.
“I said, ‘Slow down, David. We’ll get out, but we’re going to do it in a orderly way.’”
“‘No! No! No! We’ve got to get out of here right now! We can’t stay here. There’s fire above us. We can’t stay. We’ve got to get out!’”
“Our guests began to scream. They started moving toward the exit. ‘Mike, we gotta get out of here right now!’”
“‘Slow down, David.’ You got the picture? The sighted guy’s saying all the rhetorical stuff, and the blind guy’s saying slow down. And finally David said, ‘You don’t understand, you can’t see it.’ The usual line.
“Well of course I understood. I didn’t need to see it.”
The long descent
Hingson and Frank escorted the company’s guests into the hallway and down the stairwell. They still did not know what had happened, but Hingson had a strong clue. He could smell the burning jet fuel.
Then came the long descent, one step at a time, Hingson holding onto Roselle’s harness.
“‘Just keep going girl. Good girl.’ Sounding confident — forward, down 10 steps, left, left, forward, down nine more steps, left, left, forward ...”
On the 30th floor, the group of about 10 from the office met firefighters going up the stairs. One firefighter insisted that Hingson, because he was blind, be escorted by a firefighter down the stairs. Hingson, just as insistent, repeatedly declined the offer. The firefighter finally relented when Frank said he was with his co-worker and it was OK.
“I finally got him to agree. He gave Roselle one more pat. (Note: never pat a guide dog in harness. A dog in harness is always working.) She gave him a final bunch of kisses, as she always did, and he left — having received probably the last unconditional love he ever got.”
In the Chroma conference room: absolute silence.
“And then we went down as they went up.”
Finally, after 50 minutes and 1,463 steps, Hingson reached the lobby, flooded with water and crowded with people. It took 10 more minutes to emerge from Tower One into the sunshine. But the danger was far from over.
Crescendo of noise
Hingson and Frank stood about 100 yards away from Tower Two, a building over 400 yards tall. Frank was taking photos. Hingson was unsuccessfully trying to reach his wife via cell phone.
“I had put my phone away, and David was just putting his camera away, when a police officer yelled, ‘Get out of here, it’s coming down.’ We heard this rumble that became this deafening roar in, like, half a second.”
The crescendo of noise sounded like the combination of a freight train and a waterfall. As the building collapsed, everyone took off. Hingson picked up Roselle, turned her around and started running.
“I remember the first thought I had as we started to run is: ‘God, I cannot believe that you got us out of a building just to have it fall on us.’
“As soon as I thought that, I heard in my head — as clearly as you hear me — a voice that said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about what you can’t control. Focus on running with Roselle and the rest will take care of itself.’ I had that sense, that peace, that conviction.’
“I knew we’d be OK if we worked together. We’re a team. We kept running.”
Soon they were engulfed in a cloud of toxic dust — all the dirt and debris from Tower Two, all the little particles.
“It was so thick that you couldn’t see your hand six inches in front of your face, according to David. The dirt and the dust and the junk was so thick that we were breathing in more of that stuff than we were breathing in air with every breath that we took. You could feel it going down your throat.”
Roselle saved Hingson from a fall by stopping him at the top of a flight of stairs, and the saga continued.
That sound again
Hingson eventually met up again with Frank, who was about to start searching for his co-worker.
“We were in this plaza and suddenly we heard this waterfall/freight-train sound again, and we knew that it was our tower collapsing,” Hingson said.
“David looked back and he saw a dust cloud coming and he said, ‘We’ve got to get away.’
“We just hunkered down, covered our faces and waited for the noise to subside and the wind to die down and the dust cloud to pass us. And after it got quiet again, we opened our eyes, and David looked around and said, “Oh, my God. There’s no World Trade Center anymore.”
In 2004, Roselle was diagnosed with an immune-related disease with two possible causes. One possibility was genetic. But Guide Dogs for the Blind knew Roselle’s bloodlines, and there was no history of the disease.
The other possible cause: ingestion of toxins.
At 8:52 p.m. on June 26, 2011, Roselle, who had been in chronic pain, was finally relieved of her suffering. During Hingson’s visit to Chroma, he was accompanied by his new 4-year-old teammate, Africa.
In remembrance of the “Thunder Dog,” to educate people about blindness, and later to assist blind people obtain technologies for learning and working in the world, the Roselle Dream Foundation has been established. For more information visit www.rosellefoundation.org.