It’s 8:30 a.m. Normally I would be out the door by 8:00 a.m., but at the last minute I’d been held up by a call, and now I rush out of our apartment, annoyed to be running late but glad, after the turmoil of the previous night, to be on my way to the office.
Greg, my husband of barely a year, has just sprung on me the fact that he wants to leave finance and become a journalist. We had a wonderful life: I loved Greg; we had a beautiful ten-month-old baby and great jobs on Wall Street. I didn’t want to doubt his dreams, but I thought, Hold on; starting out as a reporter is a job for a 22-year-old, someone living on a shoestring who has no one to think about but himself. Our harsh exchange rang in my head. “You’re not the man I thought you were when I married you,” I had said. “I’m exactly the man you thought I was,” he’d replied.
Now, after a kiss for our son, Tyler, a quick hello to Joyce, his babysitter, and a barely grumbled good-bye to Greg, I am finally on my way. I walk up Perry Street to Washington Street, where I wait several minutes trying to hail a cab. Soon enough I am riding south, joining the morning crush of cars and trucks inching down West Street toward the World Trade Center.
I glance at my watch, and again I’m irritated by how late it is. Across the Hudson River, the Jersey City skyline is bright and sharp against the dazzling, pure blue sky. The river is a deep gray, its wind-driven swells crisscrossed by the wakes of morning water taxis. I grow impatient when we are caught at yet another red light, but before long we have arrived at the carport entrance to One World Trade Center.
I pay the driver and step out of the cab, thinking how warm it is for September. Heading for the revolving doors, I walk past the security barriers, which are barely camouflaged as large concrete planters. Through the glass, I see two women standing and talking inside. I smile at them as I push through the doors to enter the lobby, when I am jarred by an incredibly loud, piercing whistle. I hesitate for a moment, then attribute the noise to some nearby construction and continue on.
I head to the north side of the lobby, where twelve express elevators serve a sky lobby on the seventy-eighth floor. From there I’ll ride up to my hundred-and-fifth-floor office at the brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald, where, as a partner, I am about to relaunch our market-data business.
As I veer toward the elevators, I suddenly feel an incredible sense of otherworldliness. It’s an odd, tremendous, quaking feeling. Everything . . . moves. I hear a huge, whistling rush of air, an incredibly loud sound:shshooooooooooooo. And then, with an enormous, screeching exhalation, fire explodes from the elevator banks into the lobby and engulfs me. An immense weight pushes down on me, and I can barely breathe. I am whipped around. Looking to my right, where the two women were talking, I see people lying on the floor covered in flames. Like them, I am on fire.
As the first searing pain hits, I think, This can’t be happening to me. The fire embraces my body tighter than any suitor. It claws through my clothes, rifles over my shoulder blades, wraps around my legs, gripping my left arm and both my hands. I cover my face, but I can’t scream. I am in a vacuum, the air depleted of oxygen, and the shouting, the roar of the fire, the shattering sound of breaking glass—all that is very far away.
I lurch toward the doors in a desperate effort to get out. As I do, something hits me in the back of the head. For a moment, I am pushed against the glass; then I’m sucked backward again by a monstrous inhalation. I fight my way through the outer doors as the fire spreads farther down my arms, my back, my legs. And then, abruptly, I am spit out onto the sidewalk where I had been standing just seconds before.
I can see nothing but concrete and pavement, but I know there is a narrow strip of grass on the other side of West Street—my only chance to put out the flames that now envelop me like a shroud. My mind fills with thoughts of Tyler. I think to myself, I can’t leave him. I haven’t had him long enough. I can’t go out into the street in flames to die in a gutter.
I reach the grass. I drop down and begin to roll. A man comes charging over to me, ripping off his jacket and using it to help smother the flames. I tell him Greg’s cell-phone number and yell at him to call Greg. “Tell him to get the hell down here and help me!”
The flames have been extinguished, but the agony is only just beginning, the burns spreading, moving deeper and deeper, through layer after layer of dermis, fat, and muscle. I twist and turn, trying to escape, but the pain only intensifies.
The air is filled with noise, objects slamming into the ground, emergency sirens, the grinding thunder of bending steel and breaking glass. Far above, Tower One seems to sway against the blue sky, trailing a deep, black scar in its wake. It seems incongruous that a gash so high up could have created the fire that engulfed me so far below.
The roar of a plane draws my eye, and I look up just as its tail section vanishes into the south tower. Improbably, I find myself wondering how part of a plane could be hanging out of the building. But after it hits, I know that this was not just an accident. They have come back for us. The sheer walls of the World Trade Center seem to veer and sway. I feel myself losing hold, as if my fingers were being pried off a ledge one at a time. The impulse to let go is overwhelming, but, with the last full measure of my strength, I decide to live.
“Get me out of here, get me out of here!” I yell, pleading with my companion. “We have to move over! It looks like the building is going to fall!”
He helps me move a few feet down the bank. As we reach the new spot I sink forward onto the ground, and then I clearly see part of my body for the first time. At the ends of my arms, my wrists and hands are resting upon the bright-green blades of newly planted grass. They are perfectly formed, perfectly shaped, and every detail is sharp. Yet something is terribly wrong. Against the verdant background my hands are pure white, as if they had been dipped in wax.
At last, an ambulance stops on the northbound side of West Street, but the EMTs jump out and head toward the building, away from us. It’s up to me to make it over there, and so, with my companion’s help, I somehow cross that impossible distance. I am placed on a stretcher on the floor. The ambulance fills with the wounded until I am surrounded by torn trousers, soot-covered shoes, and bare, bloodied legs. The EMTs frantically step around me to help the others, but I am not being given any sort of attention. I can see that I’ve been pegged as a goner.
Opening my eyes, I turn my head and see Greg’s face. He gently smiles and says, “I love you.” Light streams in through the window behind him. I glance around. To my left, a thicket of plastic tubes runs from a metal trolley down to various parts of my body. Shifting my head a bit, I realize that something is sticking out of my neck. Nurses pour into the room, joined by a doctor or two. I don’t understand. Why are so many people coming to see me?
Greg says, “Lauren, you’ve been sedated for a long time. You were badly hurt, but you’re going to be OK.”
Of course I’ll be OK—why wouldn’t I be? The last thing I knew the ambulance had taken me to St. Vincent’s, where Greg raced to my side after a frantic hour of not knowing whether I was alive or dead. Swathed in bandages, I’d told him what had happened to me. I’d asked him, “Will I be OK?” “You’ll be fine,” he had said, his tone even. “How does my face look?” He’d replied, “It just looks like you’re really tan.”
I vaguely remembered pleading to be transferred to a burn unit. Now I learned that that same evening I’d been taken to the William Randolph Hearst Burn Center at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center and that, soon after I arrived, I’d been put into an induced coma. Burns covered more than 82 percent of my body, most terribly on my back and left arm. The recovery rate for victims of a fire is estimated to be 100 minus the percentage of the burn, which meant that I’d had, at best, an 18 percent chance of surviving.
Greg told me that I underwent the first of dozens of procedures that night. As he kept vigil beside my bed, I lay quiet, wrapped in white bandages, the only sounds the hiss of the oxygen supply and the rhythmic function of the ventilator. When he left for the evening, the nurses looked at him with a compassionate but serious expression; only later did he realize that they believed I had almost no hope of making it.
I discovered that during the nearly two months I’d been unconscious I’d had graft surgeries on my feet, my hands, my fingers, and extensively on my back, and that I’d survived repeated life-threatening crises. But as September turned to October, I’d continued to hang in there. In an effort to keep family and friends posted about my progress, Greg had begun sending out daily updates by e-mail, and soon his beautifully written notes were being disseminated across the country and around the world. The response was stunning. Bushels of get-well cards began to accumulate in my hospital room; I even received blessed water from the Kabbalah Centre and holy water from Lourdes.
On October 17, The New York Times published a front-page article about me called “A Fireball, a Prayer for Death, Then an Uphill Battle for Life.” Greg explained that he cooperated with it in large part because he wanted Tyler to have a record of my fight for life, a thought that moved me to tears.
It didn’t take me long to comprehend the severity of my injuries. Breathing, moving, getting an IV line or a tube changed, grinding through daily occupational and physical therapy—these, along with the twice-daily nursing-shift change and the frequent measurements of vital signs and organ function, were the rhythms of my new life. I had no choice but to adapt. Watching the plethora of monitors surrounding me, I felt as if I were gazing at a light show during a psychedelic-rock concert. I existed only in the immediacy of now.
A ventilator tube made it impossible for me to speak, and so I was given a placard to point to. On one side was a boxed alphabet that made it possible for me to spell out words. Next to that were the outlines of an androgynous body, to allow me to identify where I was feeling pain. It might have made more sense for me to indicate the part of my body that occasionally stopped hurting.
By early November I was fully alert but still unable to talk. Yet while I knew that my body and my life would never be the same, I was possessed by an almost unbearable happiness. I understood how incredibly lucky I was to have survived and felt almost absurdly grateful to be alive. More than ever, I wanted to live and, someday, to go back home and be with my family.
On November 11, my doctor announced that it was time to remove the breathing tube. When Greg walked into my room that evening, I whispered, “Hi, Greg.”
Startled, Greg stopped and looked at me. “Are you talking?”
“Yes,” I said, nodding.
“God, that’s wonderful.”
My voice sounded pretty rough at first. The nurses told me to take it easy, but I had so many questions. Above all, I wanted to know more about what had happened on 9/11. Greg, my parents (who had driven up from Georgia that first day and hardly left my side since), and my caregivers had been careful not to volunteer information. That way, I could take in the news at my own pace.
When I asked Greg to get some things out of my office for me, he said he would, but his manner was a bit awkward. Through conversations over the next several days, I began to understand the enormity of the attacks. Over and over when I asked about one of my colleagues at Cantor Fitzgerald, where I had worked since 1993, Greg would tell me that he or she “didn’t make it.” Finally, I looked at him. “How many died?” I asked.
“Do you really want to know?”
“Yes, I do.”
Greg paused for a moment. “Almost 700,” he said. He told me that I was one of just a handful of people who had been seriously injured that day and survived. Hearing this, I experienced a profound and desperate sorrow.
Now I had a new mission: I wanted to survive and prevail on behalf of all those who had died. I felt an upwelling of motivation, the boxer’s refusal to go down easy. I would not surrender to the terrorists. I would not permit them to take one more moment from my life. People might see a horribly injured person lying in a hospital bed; but that image was synonymous with victim, and I rejected that destiny. I would never surrender or hide; I would stand tall in this world.
It had been 67 days since I had last seen my son. The risk of infection had simply been too high. At last my doctor said it was safe for Tyler to visit, and on November 17 he was brought to the hospital for the first time. We would not be able to touch each other yet, but at least we could finally be in the same room.
I was desperate to be with him, but I was also afraid. I looked nothing at all like the mother who had kissed him goodbye on the morning of September 11. Swaddled in white bandages and sterile coverings from head to toe, I wore a Cantor Fitzgerald baseball cap and a touch of perfume that I had sometimes worn in the past. I hoped that even if I proved virtually unrecognizable to Tyler, he still might remember that fragrance.
As I was brought out to see him, I felt overwhelmed with conflicting feelings of anticipation and worry, and then, coming down the hall from the opposite direction, there he was. He was pushing a musical toy; tied to its handlebars was a red, heart-shaped balloon inscribed I love you.
“Hi, hi,” I said, as Tyler approached, my eyes welling up. He was wearing blue jeans and a blue plaid flannel shirt with a corduroy collar; he looked so small in the wide hallway. The last time I had seen him, he had been a ten-and-a-half-month-old baby just beginning to stand in his crib. Three weeks past his first birthday, here he was, walking the length of the hallway toward me!
He arrived at my chair, stopped, and looked at me quizzically. “That’s Mommy,” Greg said.
Tyler seemed uncertain, but he didn’t turn away from me. I looked at him, rapt, fighting back tears of happiness. Seeing him made me more determined than ever to get my life back.
On December 12, 91 days after I’d been admitted, I left the burn center for Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains, New York, to begin the next stage of my recovery. The challenges were immense. I could walk with little, if any, assistance, but I was unable to hold anything weighing more than a few ounces in my hand. Virtually every part of my body had been injured, and I knew I would need to work relentlessly. I thought again of Tyler; before too much longer, I promised myself, we would be together every day. And one fine morning, I would get down on the floor with him. We would roll, we would play, we would laugh and be silly just like any other mother and child.
The first challenge came without fanfare, after a nurse brought Greg and me to my room. I walked slowly over to the vanity, lifted my head, and faced a full image of myself for the first time since 9/11.
My eyes looked just as they always had: blue, intense, and unflinching. But the rest of my face had the look of a fighter who’d caught the wrong side of a punch. I felt a deep sadness for the poor woman in the mirror. Quiet tears ran down my face. I turned to Greg and said, “I wish my tears could wash away my scars.”
I decided that that injured person I saw in the mirror was not me but someone outside of me. I felt bad for that person—she had been so terribly hurt; she’d had to go through so much. But that was her, and I was me.
I quickly settled into a new routine. After the hour and a half it took to get me ready in the morning, I would head out of my room with a halting glide. My left foot barely flexed at all, so I pulled it after me in an awkward version of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. My therapy involved massage, exercise, and movement to make the scar tissue more pliable, and I threw myself into it with the single-mindedness I’d brought to my career. My doctor at Burke had been concerned that I might be receiving more therapy than I could tolerate, but I trusted myself to know my limits. Burn patients have twelve to fifteen months to regain the maximum amount of function before scar maturation, and those who haven’t pushed through the pain can find themselves immobilized.
I wanted to be able to do all the things I had done before. I wanted to type, dial a phone, drive a car, swing a golf club. I wanted to pick up and hold my son. It would take years for me to achieve something like a normal life again, and even then, it wasn’t obvious how far I could go. I’d been told that I would have function in my hands, but it wasn’t clear how much. But I would do whatever it took to achieve the best possible outcome. As Winston Churchill once said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”
Although it was tough going, there were also distinct high points—Tyler’s weekly visits; the chance to reconnect with old friends; a party given by the wife of a fellow WTC survivor, Harry Waizer, to celebrate both our birthdays; a trip to Bloomingdale’s to buy makeup for the first time; a visit from Senator Hillary Clinton, whose ready, open smile and obvious intelligence and warmth immediately put me at ease; a gala dinner in Manhattan where I was honored by the Women’s Bond Club, which I was given special dispensation to attend.
At 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I left for work. At 11:45 a.m. on Friday, March 15, 2002—six months and four days later—I finally returned home.
My rehabilitation had kept at bay the extraordinary sadness I felt at the loss of hundreds of people who had been a part of my daily life. Now that it was time to leave, I realized how much I would miss my familiar routine.
Greg helped me into the car and buckled me in, and we rode down the long driveway without looking back. As we drove south along the Hudson River, I gazed out the window at all that was the same and all that had changed. When my feet touched the cobblestones of Perry Street, I knew that the insulated world I’d left behind was gone. Our arms entwined, Greg and I walked through the door of our building.
I was greeted first by Eduardo, our doorman. All smiles, he carefully hugged me and gave me a big “welcome home.” After riding the elevator to the third floor, I walked down our hallway as I had so many times before. Greg opened the door to our apartment, and the moment I stepped inside my eyes were flooded with light from the early-afternoon sun. Joyce, who had been the last person I’d seen when I left six months earlier, was the first person I saw as I now returned. We embraced as people do who have together carried the weight of something very heavy. And as we cried and held each other, we both knew that the little boy enjoying his nap down the hall had saved me, had been the true beacon guiding me home.
Since returning home, Manning has continued to inspire, speaking at the Cantor Fitzgerald 9/11 memorial service in September 2002, carrying the Olympic Torch for the 2004 Games, and receiving honors from the Anti-Defamation League and the Blanton-Peale Institute. With the help of a surrogate, Lauren and Greg welcomed son Jagger in 2009. @
Excerpted from Unmeasured Strength, by Lauren Manning, published August 30 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2011 Lauren Manning. All rights reserved.