Braille Monitor                                                 December 2010

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Not Just Surviving the Disaster of September 11 but Providing Leadership in a Deadly Emergency

by Michael Hingson

Michael Hingson speaking at the podium.From the Editor: Michael Hingson is a name Monitor readers will recognize because his contributions to this magazine began with some regularity in the 1970s. Michael’s training is in physics and engineering, and he distinguished himself in his initial work on the Federation team that began our work with Ray Kurzweil. Today the machine Michael sells and guides in its development is much smaller and much more powerful than its predecessors, but many of the design features that made the initial unit a success contribute to making the knfbReader unique in its field.

Michael knows more than physics and engineering. He knows about finance and about public relations, and, more than all of this, he knows how to put blindness in its proper perspective as he lives a full and productive life. Often when we talk about the blind being integrated with the sighted, our emphasis is on eradicating barriers that prevent us from fully enjoying the benefits of society and giving back in equal measure, but, as Michael demonstrates, integration takes on another meaning when defined by psychologists as applying to one who melds the traits and tendencies of a personality into a harmonious whole. Michael has managed to integrate calm meditation with action, and leadership with humility. He inspires trust, while simultaneously demonstrating faith in those who trust him. The qualities that make Michael special are illustrated in the story he told on Tuesday afternoon, July 6, at our convention. Here it is:

Dr. Maurer, fellow Federationists, and friends: during the past few months we have seen the reprise of a phrase that rang out loud and strong after 9/11. Every time today I hear people say "We've got to get back to normal," I think about the fact that in reality we can't--because normal will never be the same again. Rather than trying to get back to normal, we need to find a new normal: a normal that incorporates that which happened to us and that which will help us move forward.

Sometimes a new normal becomes our way of life gradually. We got a new normal in our lives when we started flying in airplanes and transportation became easy for long distances. A new normal began to emerge when radio was developed. And, yes, a new normal emerged when television came on the scene. The new medium, it was called, although, as Fred Allen says, "I understand why it's called the new medium, because everything they do in television is only medium."

Normal is sometimes thrust upon us, as happened with 9/11. We in the National Federation of the Blind are involved in creating a new normal every day. Our opportunities to do that are regularly challenged, however, and I refer specifically to one instance that recently occurred when Dr. Richard Besser, ABC medical correspondent, reported on what could be a major breakthrough in stem cell research on June 23 of this year. Dr. Besser reported about stem cells and how one's own stem cells out of the eye could be used to regenerate corneas. But he started his report this way: "Imagine all the beauty of life gone in an instant. Suddenly blinded by a terrible accident, you can only see light and dark, but now, through a seismic breakthrough, using stem cells from one's own eye promises new sight to those blinded by burns."

The report was great; the report was fine. It is great to see stem cell research moving forward, especially using one's own stem cells to regenerate organs and parts of one's own body. But look at how he started his report. He did it on the backs of and at the expense of blind people by saying, "Imagine all the beauty of life gone in an instant." Dr. Besser made it very clear that blind people, in his estimation, cannot see the beauty of life; namely, he believes you can only experience the beauty of life through sight. In reality we know you experience the beauty of life by vision, which does not need sight. [applause]

Dr. Besser's report had shock value, but, as we have heard today, he (like many in the ophthalmological and medical profession) needs to learn a new normal. Oh, it's normal in many people's minds that blind people can't do a lick of work or do anything at all, but that's their perception. And I suppose from their perspective that makes it normal, but we know that the reality is different. We who are blind need to show Dr. Besser and others that the beauty of life goes far beyond sight. We need to show him that we do experience the beauty of life. Sitting in my backyard, I hear the hawks flying overhead, trying to find the baby ducks--and we save the baby ducks by shooing the hawks away. But we can hear them; we can experience them; we see the beauty of life in many ways. The beauty of life is here in this room, in this organization [applause]--an organization founded seventy years ago by a man who was born on July 6. Happy birthday, Dr. tenBroek. [applause]

But we also see the horrors of life. We, like those who have sight but not vision, see the horrors of life. We see it every time we experience discrimination. We see it every time blind parents are told they can't keep their children and have to fight to get them back. We see it every time a blind person is denied the right to fly or to enter a building.

We also see the horrors of life because we have grown as a people so much that we are out in the world like everyone else. Certainly for me the greatest horror of life I could ever have experienced was being in the World Trade Center on 9/11. I want to tell you this story because, out of the horror, out of all that happened, it also is a beautiful story. It's a story of teamwork, a story of people helping each other, and a story of growth that makes what happened in the World Trade Center so important and such a pivotal point for positive gains in all of our lives.

Every time I think of what happened on 9/11, I am reminded of the words of Mahatma Gandhi, who once said, "Interdependence ought to be and is as much the ideal of man as is self-sufficiency." On 9/11 everyone helped everyone else. For me it started at 1:00 in the morning when we started experiencing a thunderstorm. My guide dog at the time, Roselle, did not like thunderstorms. Today she's a little better about them, but we don't have many in California. Back then she was very fearful, and we had a thunderstorm early in the morning. So we got to go down to my basement, where we usually go, turn on the stereo, turn on the computer, do some work, and try to mask the noise for her. She hides under my desk. Especially, though, that morning it was a little bit frustrating because I had to prepare and be ready to go in to do some special work in our office. I worked at the time for Quantum Corporation and was the regional sales manager for the Mid-Atlantic region. We were going to be conducting special training sessions that day for some of our reseller partners. I was going to get up earlier than usual to be in the office before everyone arrived and still had to do it even though I had to be up for an hour and a half in the middle of the night.

I went to the office. The best laid plans always go awry in one way or another. I planned to take an early train, and the trains broke down, so I didn't get there early after all. I arrived just as a gentleman from the Port Authority cafeteria complex was bringing food that we were going to serve that day (as I tell people, some of the best ham and cheese croissants I have ever had—I still miss them terribly.) I went to my office. Soon David Frank, a colleague from our California office who was in that day, also arrived with some of our early guests. David was there because he had account responsibility for some of the people who were in that day. We set up the laptop to do the PowerPoint presentation. I was going to be doing that. It's great when a blind person does a PowerPoint presentation. Everybody thinks I can't do it. What's really fun is doing it and never turning around to look at the screen because I know what's on the slide, so all I have to do is point back. I have often been told, "You know, we didn't dare fall asleep when you were presenting because you kept looking at us. We had forgotten you were blind, and we thought you'd notice."

My response of course was, "I would have noticed. Besides, my guide dog Roselle takes notes, and we know who you are." [laughter]

Nevertheless, David was there; some early arrivals were there; we were all set up, waiting for the rest of the guests to arrive. At 8:45 in the morning David and I were in my office preparing a list of attendees for Port Authority Security when suddenly we heard a muffled explosion. The building shuddered, and then it began to tip. The whole building began to move in one direction: not shaking back and forth as we in California know earthquakes do.

As we learned later, that was as it should have been because the building had expansion joints that made it operate like a very large spring. Those of us in the physics world understand that. So the building kept tipping and tipping and tipping, and David and I said, "What's going on?" No noises were coming from our conference room. David and I speculated. Having grown up in California and being used to earthquakes, I moved to the doorway, recognizing that building moves, go to door. Doesn't matter whether it's an earthquake or not; it doesn't even matter that we are seventy-eight floors above the street--move to the door anyway, it's habit. I moved to the door. David stayed holding onto my desk. He's from New York; he didn't know earthquakes. Roselle was asleep under my desk. David and I said, "Are we going to fall to the street?" The building kept tipping. We moved about twenty feet. David and I said good-bye to each other because we thought we were going to fall seventy-eight floors to the street below. About that time the building stopped and began moving back the other way. It moved--hope against hope that we weren't going to fall--and suddenly the building was straight up again. I went back into my office, meeting Roselle coming out from under my desk. I took her leash. I told her to heel, which meant to get on my left side and sit, which she did, and about that time the building dropped straight down about six feet. That was also as it should have been, although we didn't know it at the time, because the expansion joints were contracting. The building worked perfectly.

As soon as the building dropped, David released his hold on my desk, turned around, looked out the window, and shouted, "Oh my God, there's fire and smoke above us, and there are millions of pieces of burning paper falling outside the window. We've got to get out of here right now." I could hear the paper falling outside. I wasn't smelling smoke, but I certainly believed what David was saying. Buildings don't do what ours had just done without something being wrong. He kept saying, "We've got to get out of here."

I said, "Slow down, David," because, you see, I had taken the Port Authority classes on emergency evacuation. I had also participated in fire drills, and, thanks to the Port Authority, I also had a copy of the Fire Safety and Procedures Manual in Braille. Somewhere along the line, after receiving that manual, I had taken it home. (It is still in a prized place on my bookshelf today.)

David kept saying, "We've got to get out of here."

I kept saying, "Slow down, David. We will, but we're going to evacuate in an orderly way."

He said, "No, you don't understand. We've got to get out of here right now."

I kept saying, "Slow down." Our guests began to scream. They started moving toward our exit. David was still yelling his warning. You get the picture. The sighted guy is seeing all this horrific stuff, and the blind guy is saying, "Slow down."

But I knew something that David didn't. I was observing something that David was not. It goes back to using all the skills that we have, all the wisdom that each of us has gotten from the National Federation of the Blind and our own life experiences. I was observing a dog sitting next to me who was wagging her tail and yawning and not indicating in any way that she felt nervous. Although our situation could have changed in a moment, at that instant I knew that we could evacuate safely, according to procedure. I finally got David to focus and said, "David, get our guests to the stairs and start them down, and then we'll leave." He did. He took them to the stairs and started them on their way down. Meanwhile I called my wife Karen to let her know that we were going to be evacuating because there had been an explosion or something and that I would call her as soon as I could.

I should explain that we both have disabilities. Karen is in a wheelchair. It works out great. She reads; I push. I always wanted to be a pusher, you know--California. So David came back. We took one sweep through the office. We tried to power down some equipment. We knew we weren't going to be back for days, so we wanted to save power, but we had no idea how bad it really was. We left, went to the stairs, and by 8:50 we started down. Almost immediately I began smelling a familiar odor, but I couldn't place it. People around me couldn't figure it out. Suddenly I realized that what we were smelling was the fumes from burning jet fuel; it was kerosene and propane. I said this, and people said, "Yeah, you're right. That's what it is." We assumed that an airplane had hit our building, but we didn't know why.

We all went down the stairs, and after a few floors somebody shouted from above us, "Burn victim coming through. Move to the side of the stairwell so that they can get by." Then a group of people passed us with a woman who was badly burned on her upper body. There were burns all over her, but she was ambulatory, able to walk.

David said, "She looks in shock," but she was moving down the stairs. After she passed us, we started down again, and a few floors later we heard it again: "Burn victim coming through. Move to the side." We did. The same scenario again: a group surrounding someone very badly burned passed us on the stairs.

Almost as soon as that second party had gone, a woman near us on the stairs stopped and said, "I can't breathe; I can't go on; We're not going to make it out of here."

All of us around her stopped, surrounded her, and had a group hug. We said, "Look, we're in this together. Of course you can go. We're with you." We kept going down the stairs, and so did she.

Soon after that, however, my friend David said, "Mike, we're going to die. We're not going to make it out of here."

So now I'm going "Oh sheesh." I said, "Stop it David. If Roselle and I can go down these stairs, so can you." He told me later that snapping at him like that brought him out of his funk. What he then did was something that today I think was truly remarkable. He left me and walked down a flight of stairs and then started shouting up to me everything that he saw: what floor he was on and if he saw anything on the stairs. But it wasn't I who needed this information the most; it was the other people around us for whom David became a scout, a beacon of hope as he shouted, "I'm at floor forty-eight, now forty-seven: everything is okay; forty-six, forty-five, floor forty-four. We're at the Port Authority cafeteria entrance," and he continued down. Up above, I knew that the fear was palpable; you could cut it with a knife, as they say.

I knew most of all that I had to keep Roselle focused, so I continued to praise her: "Good girl; you're doing great; keep going down the stairs; good girl; hop up; just keep focusing." I was told later that this ongoing praise also helped a bunch of people, but it really helped me because it kept me focusing on her, rather than on what was going on around us.

I kept an ear out for any noises from above that might say the building was going to fall on my head. A lot of good it would have done, but focusing on her and speaking confidently helped her focus, and her guiding down the stairs and not looking back at me and not acting fearful, in turn, told me that she was okay and that I could be okay.

We all helped each other going down those stairs; we were interdependent; it was teamwork. But you know, I did have a fear going down the stairs. I grew up thinking that blindness really wasn't the handicap people so often thought it was, and I knew that in certain situations my blindness could be an advantage. What really scared me was the thought that we might lose power and lights and I'd be on the stairs with thousands of functionally blind people who couldn't find their way out of a paper bag. So I said to people, "I don't want anyone to worry. If the lights go out, Roselle and I are here, and we're offering a half-price special: get you out safely--today only." (Got to sell too, you know.)

We continued down the stairs. We all helped each other. Sometimes we helped with humor, sometimes with speculations. We heard rumors that two planes had collided and that one had crashed into the towers. Someone else had heard that there weren't two planes but that one had gone out of control.

We also talked among ourselves. At one point I remember saying, just to lighten the mood because it sounded as if it was getting pretty somber, "Hey now, on the first day they allow us back, let's all meet on the seventy-eighth floor at 8:45 and walk down the stairs together. What a great way to lose weight, huh?" I was not dumb enough to suggest that we start at the bottom and work up. I know about gravity.

"Thirty-three, thirty-two, floor thirty-one," David called. "Hey, everybody, firemen are coming up the stairs. Move to the side. Let the firemen by." I went on down to where David was, and I asked him what he was seeing. He said, "I see firemen coming up the stairs. They are all dressed in their heavy protective clothing, and they're carrying all their equipment on their backs: the oxygen cylinders, fire axes, shovels--all the things they need to fight the fire."

Finally the first one got to us, and he stopped, the good New Yorker that he was, and said, "Hey buddy, you okay?"

I said, "Yes, I'm fine. We're good."

"We're going to send somebody down the stairs with you to make sure you get out."

I said, "Don't worry about it. We're okay."

He said, "Yeah, maybe, but we're going to send somebody with you."

I said, "Look, don't worry about it." It wasn't the time to give him the lecture about "blindness isn't the handicap you think it is."

He said again, "We're going to send somebody with you." But I was worried. I had this fear that, if he sent somebody with me who was really needed up above and something happened and they were minus one person who could have made a difference, I didn't want to be responsible for that.

Again I said, "Look' I've got my guide dog. We've come down from the seventy-eighth floor without any help. We're really okay."

"That's nice, what a nice dog." He started petting Roselle. It wasn't a good time to give him the lecture about not petting the working guide dog in harness. He said, "Yeah, we're going to send somebody with you," and I finally used my last gun.

I said, "Look, I've got a friend named David. David can see. We're really okay." He turned to David.

"You're with him?" he said.

David said, "Yeah, we're good. Don't worry."

"Okay." He gave Roselle one more pat. Roselle gave him some kisses--probably the last unconditional love he got in his life--and he went on up the stairs.

The firemen were truly heroes--all of these people we lost were heroes. We have to recognize that, but I never ask people to mourn their passing. I've spoken to many firemen since. I'm going to do what I've done with them and ask you not to have a moment of silence to mourn their passing, but help me celebrate the lives of the people we lost by giving them a round of applause. [extended applause]

While firemen continued to pass us going up the stairs and our wide stairwell was now cut in half, we continued down the stairs. David reassumed his scouting position: "Twenty-eight, twenty-seven," and we continued down the stairs, slower than before with more bodies on the stairs, but we kept going. It kept getting warmer because of all the humanity. Water bottles were passed up so that each of us could have a drink. We shared a bottle of water--Roselle, David, and I, and we kept going. David again took up his scouting position. Finally David got to the first floor. We were on the second floor, and he said, "Hey everybody, hey Mike, the water sprinklers are on in the stairwell at the bottom. You're going to have to run through the water to get out into the lobby," and then he was gone. We got to the bottom. There was this torrential downpour. I took Roselle's harness and said, "Forward," and then said, "hop up," which is a command to speed up. We burst through the downpour that was acting as a curtain to keep fire out of the stairwell or in the stairwell and out of the lobby if it came down the stairs.

I burst out into the lobby of Tower One ankle deep in water. With every step we took, we trudged through water and broken ceiling tiles that had fallen and pieces of marble that were cracked and broken. People were in the lobby shouting, "Go this way, go this way," never letting anyone go outside, but rushing everybody through the lobby, through the central doors, into the arcade that separated the towers.

The arcade was a typical shopping mall that had all the usual things that you'd find in a fairly small but very busy shopping center: a Hallmark greeting card store, a Radio Shack, a 24-hour passport photo. And then there were the important places--the ones that really mattered: Godiva Chocolate, the deli, all places that you'd find in a mall typically full of thousands of people at about 9:35 in the morning, but now totally quiet. I could hear my footfalls as I ran through the lobby, through the tower arcade, and finally up an escalator.

Both towers of the World Trade Center engulfed in flamesAt 9:45 in the morning we burst into sunlight for the first time since leaving our offices.

As we got outside, we were told to leave the complex, but, before we did, David looked around and said, "Mike, I think I see fire in Tower Two."

I said, "What are you talking about?"

He said, "There's fire up there." We had no idea; we had heard nothing; no one had told us anything. We had no clue about what had happened. But, as we were told to do, we left the complex, circled back around to get onto Broadway, and started traveling north toward midtown Manhattan, crossing several streets, and then finally reaching Fulton Street, where we stopped. We would have been on the southwest corner when we stopped, which put Tower Two diagonally across the street from us, less than a hundred yards away. David wanted to take pictures of what he could see. I tried to call my wife Karen but wasn't able to reach her. David was just putting his camera away, and I had just put my phone away after getting another circuits-are-busy message, when a police officer nearby yelled, "Get out of here. It's coming down now." Then we heard this rumble that quickly turned into a roar: this incredible cacophony of sound that I can only describe as a combination of a freight train and a waterfall all together. It was Tower Two collapsing less than a hundred yards diagonally across the street from us. Keep in mind, it was four hundred yards tall, less than a hundred yards away, and everyone turned and ran for their lives. No one was helping anyone. David was long gone. I bodily turned Roselle around and started going back the way I had come.

I remember as I ran thinking, "God, I can't believe you led us out of a building just to have it fall on us."

I will tell you something I don't tell many people, but, because of some of today’s presentations, I will. I heard in my mind, as clearly as you can hear me, a voice that said, "Don't worry about the things that you can't control. Focus on running with Roselle, and the rest will take care of itself." I had that conviction of peace that, if we did as instructed, we'd be okay. So we ran. We got to the next street and turned right to try to put a building between us and Tower Two collapsing (as if it would really make a difference). I ran a little bit and suddenly caught up to David, who had realized that he had run and that we were separated. He had turned around and was going to come back. I caught up with him, and he apologized and said, "I'm sorry, Mike; I left you."

I said, "David, don't worry. The building is coming down. Let's keep going." So we ran.

Almost immediately we were engulfed in the dust cloud composed of the fine particles of Tower Two's break-up. The dirt and debris that David described were so thick that you could only see about six inches in front of your nose. I can tell you, it was so thick that we could feel it going down our throats with every breath we took. We were drowning in it, and we knew that we had to get out of that. We began looking for an entrance to a building on our right. Rocks and debris were falling around us. We were partially protected by an overhang, but still I was hit in the ear and in the head a couple of times by small rocks. We kept running. I kept telling Roselle, "Right right," which means that she should look for the next available turn. David was looking. I was listening for an opening. Suddenly I heard an opening, and Roselle obviously saw it because she turned right, took one step, and stopped dead.

All this time Roselle had been working appropriately. She had been doing everything that she should, so I knew that, if she stopped, there had to be a reason. Reaching out my foot, I discovered that we were at the top of a flight of stairs. She had done exactly what she was supposed to do. [applause]

We walked down the stairs and found ourselves in the small arcade to the Fulton Street subway station. When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I heard a woman crying and saying, "Help, I can't see. My eyes are filled with dirt, and I don't want to fall into the subway."

I happened to be close to her when I got down the stairs. I reached out, took her arm, and said, "Don't worry, I happen to be blind, but I have a guide dog named Roselle. She's doing well. She will make sure that neither of us falls down the stairs. You're okay."

How quickly teamwork reasserted itself--helping others--working together.

I introduced myself to the woman. She said her name was Carol, and then a guy from the subway system came up the stairs and said "My name is Lou. I work for the subway. Come with me." There were about eight or nine of us there. We followed him down the stairs into the subway complex. He took us to an employee locker room, where there were benches, a water fountain, and a fan; Lou told us we could stay there.

After about fifteen minutes a police officer found us and said, "You need to leave now. The air has cleared up above." Without saying anything else, we followed him. He brooked no response at all--he was busy doing what he needed to do, and we followed him like sheep: up the stairs, through the arcade, and then up the final set of stairs, emerging into sunlight again.

The air was a little better than it had been when we went down. David looked around and said, "Oh my God, Mike: there's no Tower Two anymore."

I said, "David, what do you see?"

He said, "All I see are pillars of smoke hundreds of feet tall, but there's no Tower Two."

I said, "Are you sure?"

He said, "Yeah." We stood there in shock for a moment and then just turned and walked west on Fulton Street.

We walked for about ten minutes and then decided to circle back around to try to get to midtown Manhattan. As we started, suddenly we heard that freight-train-waterfall sound again. We knew it was Tower One collapsing. We thought that we were far enough away that we wouldn't be hurt and hit by debris, but David did see another dust cloud coming, so we ran to get out of the path of the main cloud, covered our faces, closed our eyes, and waited for it to subside. When it did, we opened our eyes, and David looked around. I remember what he said, "Oh my God: there is no World Trade Center anymore." I asked him again what he saw, and he said, "All I see are fingers of fire, pillars of smoke hundreds of feet tall--the World Trade Center is gone."

We just stood there in silence for a couple of minutes, and I tried to call my wife Karen on the phone. This time I got through. After tears on both ends of the line, she's the one who told us that two aircraft had been deliberately crashed into the Towers and one into the Pentagon, and a fourth was still missing over Pennsylvania. We had been attacked.

We started making our way toward midtown Manhattan. We got to Chinatown and stopped at a little Vietnamese restaurant for a while to rest. While there, we heard aircraft in the skies--this loud aircraft sound. Everyone gasped. Many ran outside and suddenly burst into applause as we saw that it was our guys controlling the skies again. [applause]

We finally made our way to midtown Manhattan, and later that day I was able to catch a train to Newark, New Jersey, and then later to Westfield. Meanwhile, a close family friend, Tom Painer, whom Karen had known since high school in California, had come to be with her, and, when he arrived, he didn't even know whether I was alive or dead. Later that day he drove Karen to the train station to pick me up. I heard the van as we arrived. I went down the stairs, across the sidewalk, up the ramp, into our van, and hugged Karen for the first time. As we compared notes later, we both had been thinking the same thing: what else had they planned that would have caused us never to see each other again? But we had been able to.

We went home and began trying to make sense of what had happened. Our story became visible in the media. I've had a number of opportunities to appear on television shows like Larry King Live several times, The Morning Show, Regis and Kelly Live, and others to tell the story: the story of horror but the story of beauty and the story of teamwork--the story that says we can survive disaster; we can survive change, and even the worst change, the most horrific change, may indeed be a way to bring about a change for good. But we need to work together to make change happen. We need to act as a team.

I tell the 9/11 story to help people understand what happened and how they might be able to survive change. I tell it to help them think about preparing for the change that you don't expect and to make the changes that you do expect. I tell the story so that people learn to expect change and to make it happen--in other words, to find a new normal.

Dr. Besser, the new normal really is here. You may not know it; you may not see it; but close your eyes and use your vision, and you'll learn a whole lot more than you now know. [applause]

Giving a Dream

One of the great satisfactions in life is having the opportunity to assist others. Consider making a gift to the National Federation of the Blind to continue turning our dreams into reality. A gift to the NFB is not merely a donation to an organization; it provides resources that will directly ensure a brighter future for all blind people.

Seize the Future

The National Federation of the Blind has special giving opportunities that will benefit the giver as well as the NFB. Of course the largest benefit to the donor is the satisfaction of knowing that the gift is leaving a legacy of opportunity. However, gifts may be structured to provide more:

NFB programs are dynamic:

Your gift makes you a partner in the NFB dream. For further information or assistance, contact the NFB planned giving officer.

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