The Faith to Listen

Having survived on September 11, he learned to trust the voice deep inside all of us.

- Posted on Jun 30, 2009

Michael and Roselle back at work in NYC

To live is to trust.

That's especially true for someone like me, blind from birth. As a child, when I was feeling frustrated by my handicap or if I ran into some other problem I couldn't handle well on my own, I'd go to my father.

"Look inside," he'd say. "Search deep within yourself, and find that place where God can talk to you. He's always ready to help. All you need to do is practice listening, and trust what you hear."

When I found myself in tough situations over the years, I'd try what Dad suggested. I'd pray and listen for that voice. Sometimes I'd hear it and other times I wouldn't, but I never stopped practicing. On the morning of September 11, a moment came when I needed it as I never had before.

It was a little before 8:45 a.m., and I was in my office at Quantum ATL, a company that provides computer data backup systems for businesses.

Quantum got its start in California, where earthquakes have made businesspeople especially sensitive to the importance of being ready for the unexpected. "Be prepared" could have been our company's motto.

There was no question it was mine. To function effectively in an office environment, a blind person needs to be almost obsessively organized. When I arrived each morning, my guide dog, Roselle, would park herself beneath my desk until lunch, and I'd take it from there.

I knew every inch of my office and could find a document or send a fax as quickly as anyone else.

Our offices were located on the 78th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and that early in the morning, they were all but empty. My coworker, David Frank, and I were about to explain our services to a visiting group of executives.

I was at my computer when somewhere above me the loudest explosion I'd ever heard went off. Shouts and screams came from outside my door. The floor tilted like the deck of a ship, and for one crazy second, it felt like the building was going to tip over.

All the care and planning in the world couldn't prepare a person for a moment like this. The only thing to do was go to that place inside myself, and pray for guidance.

I took a deep breath. I tried to listen. Stay calm. Not a voice, just a feeling.

Outside my window, I could hear debris from the explosion tinkling and rattling past. David came into my office.

"What on earth was that?"

"I don't know. A plane?"

"I can see fire above us," David said from the window. "We better get out."

We ushered the visitors to the stairwell. "The elevators don't work in emergencies," we told them. "You'll have to walk."

I called my wife, Karen, and moved through the offices trying to shut down as many machines as possible. Don't panic, I told myself, and I kept on praying. God, I know everything is in your hands, and I'm listening. I grabbed Roselle's harness and headed for the stairs with David.

Above and below us I could hear other voices—some calm, others agitated. With each floor we passed, the voices grew in number. Still Roselle kept a steady pace. Thousands of us were on the move, trying to escape from whatever horrific event had occurred above us.

We were so focused on exiting that no one heard the impact when the second plane struck the South Tower just a few minutes after I started down.

A thick, gasoline-like smell filled the air. As we descended, it got stronger. "Jet fuel," David said. People began choking on the fumes. Was the fire gaining on us? There was nothing to do but keep on walking and praying.

As I did so, that wordless feeling flowed through me. Stay calm. Trust me. I felt the knob of one of the exit doors as we passed by. It was cool. The fire's still far away. We need to keep going.

In the stairwell, a line of firefighters began tramping past, on their way up toward the flames. "How are you two doing?" one of them asked when he saw Roselle and me. I felt a pull of concern as I thought of what might be waiting for the firefighters above.

"We're fine," I said. "Please take care of yourselves." Again, I thought of my father's words. All I could do was trust that God was in control.

David called out the floor numbers as we descended. "Fifty-nine." "Forty-two." "Twenty-seven." Finally, more than 40 minutes after we'd started out, we emerged into the lobby. Police and FBI troops directed us into the street. I tried to call Karen again on my cell phone, but I couldn't get through.

We weren't out of the building long before a new sound began behind me—a sound even louder, more terrifying than the sound of the crash had been. It was as if an enormous freight train was roaring at us from the sky.

"Run!" David shouted. "The building's coming down!"

My lungs filled with dust. It was so thick I could actually feel it on my skin. David's hand gripped my shoulder.

"I can't see," he shouted.

Could Roselle still tell where she was going? I doubted it. Yet her pace was assured. Stay calm. Just trust.

Though I entrusted Roselle with my life every day, I rarely allowed her to run when she was guiding me. It was just too dangerous. But I could tell she wanted to speed up. With David's hand still on my shoulder, I broke into a run.

Roselle led us down a side street and around a corner, then slowed to a fast trot. Somehow, she just kept on navigating through the dense field of dust and smoke. We came to a subway staircase and descended.

At the bottom, it got a little easier to breathe. We rested there for a while, then went back up and resumed our journey.

When the second tower collapsed, we were far enough away that it wasn't able to overwhelm us. Finally I was able to reach Karen to tell her we were okay.

By that evening, I was home with her, grateful to be alive but saddened along with the rest of the country by the terrible loss of human life and the uncertainty of what tomorrow would bring.

There are still so many unanswered questions about what happened that day—not the least of which is how Roselle managed to keep guiding me when all went black. The one thing I know for certain is that my dad was right. Even when things are at their darkest, God is there, guiding us.

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