Heartwarming

12.19.13

Strangers Rally to Help Blind Man Keep His Guide Dog

In a twist that reveals the best of the holiday season, a Brooklyn man saved from an oncoming subway train will get to keep his elderly guide dog after an amazing fundraising campaign.

The newest celebrity in New York is a black Labrador guide dog named Orlando, who played a big part in what firefighters are calling a holiday season miracle.

In so doing, Orlando demonstrated the very best qualities in his species and inspired the very best qualities in our own.

The dog was in the 125th Street subway station in Harlem at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, when his owner fainted. Orlando tried to pull 60-year-old Cecil Williams back from the platform’s edge, but the Brooklyn man kept tumbling, landing on the uptown tracks.

Orlando jumped down with Williams, at first trying to rouse him by licking his face, then taking a protective position between him and approaching A train. A transit worker called out to Williams.

“Put your head down! Put your head down!”

Williams did not respond.

“Put your head down!” the worker cried out a third time.

Williams ducked his head down, and only then did Orlando do the same. The train was right upon them, and it seemed that an overwhelming instinct for self-preservation would surely send the dog fleeing. Orlando stayed where he was as the first car and half of the second rumbled over them.

The train finally stopped and a double tragedy seemed all but certain. But firefighters arrived to discover that Williams and Orlando had escaped serious injury. Doctors at St. Luke-Roosevelt hospital confirmed that Williams had suffered only a laceration on his head and a few bruises. Orlando was fine.

“This definitely is a miracle,” said FDNY Capt. Danny O’Sullivan.

The New York Daily News rightly pronounced it The Miracle Under 125th Street. Other newspapers and media outlets also carried the story, which took a twist when Williams told reporters that he might soon be forced to give up the four-legged embodiment of devotion, courage, and loyalty who has been his companion for eight years.

As his grizzled snout suggests, Orlando is 11 years old, which translates to 77 in dog years. He is slated to be retired at this end of this month, at which time he will go from working dog to pet.

“I’d like to say, ‘Thank you,’ but I’m looking for some more words to describe how it feels,” he said, adding, “It’s a blessing…”

“Insurance companies don’t put for pets,” notes a spokeswoman for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, which trained Orlando for three years before providing him to Williams.

Guiding Eyes is giving Williams the option of keeping Orlando, but that would involve the cost of feeding and caring for him, and Williams was afraid that might be beyond his decidedly modest means. He had already been hoping to keep Orlando, but after the incident in the subway, it seemed unthinkable that they might part.

“He stayed down there with me, he was licking my face,” Williams said. “He was there for me.”

Among the many people who saw the story and felt an immediate urge to do something was Mark Jacobson of Washington, D.C., who retains a sense of what is most important after three years with the military and then as a high level civilian adviser in Afghanistan. He was now struck by inspiration born of the digital age.

“You know what, why don’t I go on GoFundMe?’” he asked himself.

He did just that and found it took only a few minutes to set up a Help Cecil Williams & Orlando the Lab page. He then began witnessing one circumstance where money truly measures virtue and attests to how much goodness and generosity is out there. The donations totaled $29,529 as of Wednesday evening.

“The $5 donations are as heartwarming and in some ways more poignant than the larger donations,” Jacobson said. “And they’re as trusting as hell. They don’t know who the hell I am.”

He summed it up with a single exultation.

“Incredible!”

Another donations page, on Indiegogo, collected more than $56,000. Many more people called Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown, N.Y. A spokeswoman echoed Jacobson.

“It’s amazing,” she said.

She noted that Orlando was never in danger of having anything but a good home, as retired dogs are offered first to the owner then to the people who raised them as pups, and finally to the many welcoming souls who support the organization. She was thrilled that Orlando almost certainly will be able to remain with Williams.

“Orlando is going to live a great life,” she said.

As the donations kept pouring in, Williams appeared at a press conference at St. Luke’s Hospital with Orlando beside his wheelchair. His life has been a challenge since meningitis robbed him of his sight in 1995 and made it impossible for him to keep working as a genius handyman of noted resourcefulness. He was now a man suddenly so overwhelmed by his good fortune that he had difficulty fully expressing his gratitude for The Miracle Under 125th Street and for the ensuing outpouring of support.

“I’d like to say, ‘Thank you,’ but I’m looking for some more words to describe how it feels,” he said, adding, “It’s a blessing...”

He then used the same word as had the fire captain.

“…a miracle.”

Williams raised the end of a white hospital sheet to dab at the tears tricking down from behind his dark glasses. He offered more words, ones that are the very spirit of the holiday season.

“Peace and good will,” he said.

The season that had threatened to end with him losing his companion would now see him getting the best gift he could have received.

“The spirit of giving, Christmas…it exists here,” he said, “It’s in New York.”

He not only will be able to keep Orlando but also guarantee whatever the dog might need.

“Orlando has been working for eight years, he’s 77 years old, and now he can retire and be a pet,” Williams said. “His medical coverage is taken care of as long as he lives, and other things will be there for him, too.”

Williams did not need to feel around when he reached from his wheelchair to pet Orlando. He knew the dog would be right there, as he has been for eight years, as he now will continue to be, having shown and inspired qualities that make this truly the season of peace and good will.

“Orlando,” Williams said. “He’s my best buddy. He’s my pal.”