On the bright New York City morning of September 11th, 2001, Lauren Manning said goodbye to her family and departed for her office in the World Trade Center, just as she’d done countless times before. That particular morning, of course, found her suddenly ensconced in unimaginable circumstances that changed her life forever. “Unmeasured Strength” is the truly inspiring story of her survival, her determination and her amazing resilience. Here’s an excerpt.
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PROLOGUE: Everything Moves
It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.
I rush out of our apartment at about 8:30 a.m., annoyed to be running so late but glad, after the turmoil of the previous night, to be on my way to work.
Normally I would be out the door by 8:00 a.m., but just as I was about to leave I received a call from Mari Fitzpatrick, the caretaker at our weekend home in Pine Plains, New York. A real estate appraisal of the house is scheduled for later today, but the key for the appraiser has disappeared. Our summer renters had dropped it off earlier this morning, putting it in an envelope taped to a shopping bag that carried a freshly baked apple pie. They'd hung the bag from the knob of Mari's back door, but Maggie, Mari's free-ranging black lab, had found the pie and wolfed it down, and the key was nowhere to be found among the crumbs. Fortunately, I was able to reach Billie Woods, a friend and realtor who also has a spare key and who lives nearby in Rhinebeck, and she agreed to be there to open the house.
Now, after a kiss for my son, Tyler, a quick hello to Joyce, his babysitter, and a barely grumbled good-bye to my husband, 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. But soon enough I am riding south, making a right on Houston Street, then left to join 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. The watch is gold and silver, an engagement gift from Greg, and for a moment I wonder if I should have worn my silver watch instead, since it might have gone better with the slate-gray silk suit I'm wearing. Across the Hudson River, the Jersey City skyline is bright and sharp against a backdrop of 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 are turning left across West Street to the carport entrance to One World Trade Center.
As the taxi pulls under the clear roof of the porte cochere, I take out my wallet to pay the driver. Two cabs in front of us pull forward, and I ask my driver to move up a bit so I can get out directly in front of the building's entrance. I step out of the cab, thinking how warm it is for September, how just the week before we were still at the beach in Bridgehampton. Heading for the revolving doors, I walk past the security barriers, which are barely camouflaged as large concrete planters. As I approach the building, I look through the glass and see two women standing and talking inside. I smile at them as I push through the revolving doors. Then I move through a second set of doors and enter the lobby, where I am jarred by an incredibly loud, piercing whistle.
I hesitate for a moment before attributing the noise to some nearby construction project and continuing toward the elevators.
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Directly ahead, elevator banks serve floors 1 through 43, and a central freight elevator serves every floor from 1 through 107. To my right, two elevators on the lobby's south side go straight to Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor. These two are flanked by eight more that go to a sky lobby on the 44th floor. To my left, on the north side of the lobby, twelve express elevators serve the 78th floor sky lobby, where I will catch a second elevator to reach my 105th-floor office at Cantor Fitzgerald.
As I veer left toward my elevators, I suddenly feel an incredible sense of otherworldliness. It's an odd, tremendous, quaking feeling, and everything . . . moves. The entire 110-story tower is trembling.
Then I hear a huge, whistling rush of air, an incredibly loud sound: shshooooooooooooo. My adversary is racing toward me, howling in fury at its containment as it plummets to meet me from above the 90th floor.Story: Five must-read books about 9/11 and its legacy
This is the moment and place of our introduction.
With an enormous, screeching exhalation, the fire explodes from the elevator banks into the lobby and engulfs me, its tentacles of flame hungrily latching on. An immense weight pushes down on me, and I can barely breathe. I am whipped around. Looking to my right toward where the two women were talking, I see people lying on the floor covered in flames, burning alive.
Like them, I am on fire.
God asks us to speak, to record the memories that mark our lives. This is the living testament, then, of the times and places and things I have done that mark my days on Earth.
Since 9/11, I have often been asked to share my story, but it is always with a certain awkwardness that I talk about myself or my personal feelings. I am much more comfortable telling a joke, chatting about the headline of the moment, or drawing others in by asking about their lives. Rarely will I turn the conversation in my own direction. My parents frowned on self-congratulation, and so even when my siblings and I had a right to be proud of our accomplishments, we were told to be humble. Alongside hard work, the trait my parents seemed to value the most was humility. So telling my story has its challenges.
Here is the simple version of what happened: I went to work one morning and was engulfed by the fires that would bring down the twin towers of the World Trade Center. I fled the building in flames, so terribly injured that almost no one held out any hope for me. Yet in the weeks and months that followed, I battled back from the edge of death to hold my child in my arms and intertwine my husband's fingers with what was left of my own. In almost every way, this is the story of a miracle.
I will never know how many others were gravely wounded along with me during the attacks' first moments. The places where my fellow victims stood, more than a thousand feet in the air, have disappeared forever. When the buildings collapsed, they took with them thousands of lives, among them too many of my friends and colleagues. By the smallest of margins, I was given a chance to survive, and I decided, early that morning, that I would never give up the fight to live. I would never surrender.
The tale I have to tell is full of adventure, though not in the conventional sense. I did not need to travel to the ends of the earth, scale prodigious mountains, or challenge vast oceans to find the ultimate tests of endurance. I faced death every day for almost three months, armed only with the breath in my lungs and the strength in my heart. After I emerged from weeks of darkness, I discovered that the simplest of tasks were beyond my ability, and that accomplishing them would require equal measures of defiance and will. It took months to learn to breathe on my own again, to recover the ability to speak, to relearn how to walk. It took years to recover the most basic semblance of a normal life.
Hear author Lauren Manning read an excerpt from the audiobook ‘Unmeasured Strength’
I was blessed by the support and comfort provided by my loved ones, and strengthened by the belief from within that I could reclaim my life. The guardians of my heart—my husband, my son, and the rest of my family—cradled me. An enormous outpouring of letters and prayers, messages and gifts from around the world flooded our lives with a happiness that lifted me in my darkest moments, and a hope that helped fuel my survival.
Yet while I was surrounded by love, the journey through a harsh and unforgiving landscape of pain and disability was mine alone to make. That I lived, that I narrowly escaped the fate of so many others that day, is a humbling reminder of both the extreme fragility and the surprising courage that exist within all of us. What I know for certain is that there would be no story at all if I hadn't somehow held a deep faith in myself or understood the beauty and power of a simple word: commitment. Commitment to all that is worthwhile in life: to the people who are most important to us; to the endeavors that will yield the most good; to the acts of kindness or courage that reflect our deepest values. Commitment, I've learned, brings focus and direction, an innate sense that guides us from within, providing a compass for our lives. It also brings responsibility, most especially the requirement that we keep our word and always give our best.
Before I was injured, I had committed to any number of things. To relationships, friends, family. To hard work and a successful career. To commonplace hopes and deepest desires. Generally I had done this by relying on a quiet confidence that I could make good things happen. But the truth is, I sometimes wasn't able to do so. On occasion, I felt strangely paralyzed by the thought of achieving my goals. At other times, the effort to reach a desired destination proved so difficult that my vision of it dimmed, and eventually I moved on to new dreams.Story: 10 years after 9/11, a dad’s love triumphs over terror
But when 9/11 brought me to the border between life and death, and then face-to-face with monumental challenges, I understood that no matter how painful the task before me, I could not turn away. I had to make the most important commitment of all: a commitment to life itself.
It's now been a decade since that day, and sometimes I look back and wonder, Have I accomplished anything of note or great worth? People have called me a hero, but I can only say that I did what I needed to do. I was not the agent of my own adversity. Pain and suffering were imposed on me; they invaded and overwhelmed my body and threatened to crush my soul. Once I opened my eyes after a long climb out of the darkness, I knew that every day, I had a choice. Every day I had to fully commit to outlasting my enemies—those cowards who covered their faces from the light and screamed toward us in their metal daggers. Would I let their act of terror beat me into submission? Would I let them win? Would I let them steal my will to live, having failed to extinguish my life itself? Every day, I had to reach deep inside and find an as yet unmeasured strength that made it possible to carry on.
As I encountered and then overcame one obstacle after another, what mattered most was that I was loved. I had a husband who thought I was beautiful, even though so much of my body had been burned. I had a son who was always thrilled to see me. And luck? I had that, too. Pure luck, blind luck, and bad luck—on 9/11, I ended up with all three.
So yes, this is a story about what happened to me on September 11. But it's also about November 11, the day I first spoke again, and it's about June 11, the first time I danced again with my beautiful boy Tyler. It's about September 11, 2002, when I cheered for the glory of my lost colleagues. And it's about every day afterward.
This is the story of how I learned to live again.
From the Book UNMEASURED STRENGTH by Lauren Manning. Copyright © 2011 by Lauren Manning. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company LLC.
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