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Video: 9/11 burn victim: ‘There’s nowhere to go but forward’

  1. Closed captioning of: 9/11 burn victim: ‘There’s nowhere to go but forward’

    >>> as you know sunday marks the tenth an veanniversary of the terrorist attacks. lauren manning worked at the time and suffered burn on more than 80% of her body. now she's telling her story of survival and healing on the book "unmeasured strength." we're going to talk to lauren in a moment, but first, her incredible memory.

    >> you can make odds work in your favor.

    >> reporter: lauren manning arrived for work at one world trade center on that september morning on a day that seemed like any other. as she entered the lobby the plane struck and a fireball raised down the elevator shaft .

    >> i was engulfed in flames. i struggled to run out of the building. pain was overwhelming. and i saw my son, and i made a decision, a very conscious decision to live.

    >> reporter: lauren 's husband greg who worked in the second tower was home that morning and saw the plane hit his wife's building. he assumed the worst, but 40 agonizing minutes later, the phone rang.

    >> i got this amazing phone call from the man who helped lauren . all he said was, mr. manning, i'm with your wife. she's badly burned was we've got her in an ambulance.

    >> reporter: lauren ended up at the burn unit barely alive with more than 80% of her body covered in burns.

    >> lauren was critically ill. she was on a respirator right from the gbeginning.

    >> reporter: for the next three months lauren lay in her hospital bed clinging to life. but against all odds she survived, and then became determined to heal. she endured more than 25 surgeries, spent years in physical therapy . she said her young son tyler kept her going through her darkest days.

    >> so much of what i did was just to get back to him, to finally be able to hold him again, to play with him, to see him grow, to see him become what he is now at 10 years old.

    >> reporter: lauren and greg hoped for a second child. two years ago he arrived. and now lauren says she's telling her story to share it with her boys and also to thank those who helped her find the strength to make a way back home . and lauren manning is back with us this morning. lauren , it's great to see you.

    >> great to be here, matt.

    >> six years since you were here last time. you look amazing.

    >> thank you very much. it's been a long road.

    >> you describe your life now as a new normal. how different is it from the old normal?

    >> i think that i've reconciled with the fact that i live with mass degrees of imperfection and i've learned to inhabit the body that i have. and i think emotionally just feel much more relaxed with the notion that not everything in life turns out the way we think it will.

    >> i think through the times you had been here in the past there's been a lot of concentration on your physical wounds. and i wonder, though, about the emotional wounds. how are you different today emotionally than you were on september 10th , 2001 ?

    >> i think that much of me is very much the same. it was a decision i made that day to live based on, i think, a lot of my upbringing that said things are going to happen, you've just got to get over it and get through it. what i find today is that i'm a lot more forgiving of myself and more patient. just enjoying the moments in all their simplicity.

    >> even as you say that you write eloquently in your book about the ten-year anniversary that is approaching and you write, 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. explain this idea that in some ways you feel as if you must do something of note or great worth because you survived.

    >> i think that being touched as i was by this tragedy in such a visceral way, it really allowed me to reflect that we all are wounded in some way or another by illness or violence or other tragedy. and although we can be touched by it, we need not be held by it. and for my family, for certainly my children and all those countless thousands that supported me and prayed for me, i felt that i had a job to do. i was going to avenge those of my colleagues and friends and others who could not fight that day. i had been dealt a tough hand but at least i have one to play.

    >> i tried -- i remember one time you were here and i was trying to put myself in your shoes and i was trying to play that what if game. you know that game where what if you had been in that building 30 seconds later or five minutes before or you hadn't gone to work. do you ever allow your mind to go in that direction?

    >> yeah, i think -- i think that's a natural thing that happens in life. it was a dog eating an apple pie where key was nestled amongst the bag that basically saved my life. we have k. all retrospect on a daily basis, what if, should i, could i have. at the end of the it all there's nowhere to go but forward. i thank god for that. my husband ran late and as a result both our children obviously, they're not orphans.

    >> your son tyler was 10 months old, i think, at the time.

    >> yeah.

    >> and not long ago you welcomed jagger into the world. that had to be some kind of a turning point in your emotional recovery.

    >> it was an extraordinary turning point. one of the things that i most felt had been taken from us was an opportunity to have another child. and we struggled for years with great disappointment and heartache, and finally on october 22nd nearly two years ago a gestational carrier helped us deliver our wonderful little guy jagger thomas.

    >> and tyler and he getting along famously?

    >> so far, so good. but they're getting to this stage where it's getting a little dicey sometimes.

    >> it will be that way for a while. lauren manning, the book is called "unmeasured strength." we're thrilled to have you back today.

    >> thank you, matt.

    >>> we're back in a moment. this is "today" on nbc. is.

By
TODAY books
updated 9/7/2011 9:28:13 AM ET 2011-09-07T13:28:13

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.
—Buddha

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.

‘Where You Left Me’: 9/11 widow regains ability to love

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.

Dick Cheney on 9/11: ‘We were living in the fog of war’

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.

Henry Holt

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.

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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.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive

Photos: Remains of the day

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  1. Nancy Nee, George's sister

    A heavily dented and damaged mass hardly recognizable as the helmet it once was. Thinking about how powerful the destructive force must have been still makes her lose her breath. “George was such a tall, strong man’,’ says Nancy Nee. And yet looking at the black relic brings her a certain measure of peace. Her brother George Cain was a firefighter to the core and the helmet was an integral part of his life. On Sept. 11, George helped evacuate hundreds of guests from the Marriott Hotel, close to the World Trade Center. When the towers collapsed, he did not stand a chance. The hotel was destroyed, but most of the guests survived. To this day, her children miss their uncle very much, says Nancy. She still hasn’t shown her two youngest the helmet.

    Captions by Giuseppe di Grazia and Martin Knobbe / stern Magazine
    Translation by Anuschka Tomat (Henry Leutwyler / Contour by Getty Images for stern Magazine) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Myrta Gschaar, Robert’s Wife

    Maybe he did manage to get out of the South Tower after all. Maybe he is wandering around not knowing who he is. For years, these thoughts haunted Myrta Gschaar. She did not abandon hope, until the day authorities informed her that her husband’s wallet had been recovered. When she went to the police station to pick it up, she saw the two-dollar bill. Myrta Gschaar felt dizzy and the policemen needed to keep her from falling. It was one of the two-dollar bills with which Robert had proposed to Myrta. They had promised each other to always carry theirs with them. When Myrta had recovered, she placed the slightly charred note next to her undamaged one. She moved them toward each other as if they were about to kiss for the last time. Or the first. (Henry Leutwyler / Contour by Getty Images for stern Magazine) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Bradley Burlingame, Charles’ brother

    The poem’s words are still clearly legible: “Don’t stand at my grave crying. I am not here. I did not die.” This sentence was printed on the reverse side of the funeral card for Patricia Burlingame. Her son Charles always carried it with him, just as he did on the day that terrorists hijacked the plane he was flying. Flight AA 77 crashed into the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., at 9:37 am. Sixty-four people on the plane and 125 more inside the building died. Knowing that his brother had the funeral card on him is a comforting thought for Brad Burlingame. Just as comforting, that he likely died a hero. The flight data analysis showed that 30 minutes after takeoff, the air carrier suddenly started an erratic flight pattern. For Brad, it indicates a struggle in the cockpit. “Charles was a former Navy pilot. He defended his plane and his passengers until the very end.” (Henry Leutwyler / Contour by Getty Images for stern Magazine) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Erich Bay, Lorraine’s husband

    Lorraine Bay was supposed to be back home from her United Airlines flight on Wednesday night. On the evening of Sept. 12th, the flight attendant planned to celebrate her husband's birthday. Half a year later in their house, Erich found the presents Lorraine had bought for him: two shirts and two belts. It took Erich a long time before he mustered the strength to enter Lorraine’s room. And it took him even longer before he was able to open the box that contained her belongings that had been recovered from the area where her plane crashed in Pennsylvania. In it, he found a pair of sandals Lorraine had packed for the late summer weather. Her wedding band was slightly melted and it was missing a stone. The ring remains Erich’s most important memento of his wife. He gave Lorraine’s earrings to one of his nieces, but he will keep the wedding band until he dies. (Henry Leutwyler / Contour by Getty Images for stern Magazine) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Joseph and Samia Iskandar, Waleed’s parents

    Three frequent flyer cards and a debit card are all that remained of their son. Recovery workers at Ground Zero found neither his body nor any parts of it Thus, the parents placed the four cards along with a photo of their son in a niche in the San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Los Angeles. The plastic is the only remembrance of the last day of Waleed Iskandar's life. The youngest of three children, he was born in Lebanon and raised in Kuwait. He graduated from Stanford and Harvard. In his job as a consultant and in his leisure time with his girlfriend, Nicolette, he flew more than 400,000 miles a year. He was sitting in the window seat in row 34 when the plane crashed into the North tower. His parents, Joseph and Samia Iskandar, hope that maybe “he did not exactly know what was going on in the cockpit.” (Henry Leutwyler / Contour by Getty Images for stern Magazine) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Nelly Braginsky, Alexander’s mother

    Alexander Braginsky had immediately accepted an invitation by his employer, the news agency Reuters, to an 8:30 am business breakfast at Windows on the World on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center. Fifteen minutes later, a Boeing 767 crashed into the North Tower. “If he had only stayed in his office, if he had only been less keen on learning new things,” says his mother. Braginsky, however, wanted to know everything and he happily shared his knowledge. On the evening of the day he died, he was scheduled to hold a lecture in front of immigrants. He himself was an immigrant, who came to the U.S. from Odessa, Ukraine, when he was 15 years old. Ever since, he had helped others navigate the exciting metropolis of New York. For a long time, the wallet had been the only memory of her son that Nelly Braginsky could hold in her hands. Just this past April, she learned that a bone fragment had been found. Finally, she was able to bury Alexander. (Henry Leutwyler / Contour by Getty Images for stern Magazine) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Betzy Parks, Robert's sister

    To his sister, he was the man who wrote letters. He sent her a greeting card when she graduated from High School. He sent her encouraging words when she left for England to pursue her studies and later when she traveled Europe. Writing letters was his way of showing his affection. Thus, Betzy Parks knew immediately that she had found the perfect gift for her brother Robert when she spotted a silvery letter opener in a bazaar in Mexico in 1991. He had kept it on his desk ever since and he took it with him when he started working as a bond broker for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center. There, the father of two teenagers was known as a wizard with numbers. He knew almost every movement of the stock market since 1929 by heart, as well as every home run the New York Yankees ever made. On Sept. 11th, 2001, Cantor Fitzgerald lost 658 of the 1,000 employees in its York headquarters. (Henry Leutwyler / Contour by Getty Images for stern Magazine) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Sonia Tita Puopolo, Sonia Morales Puopolo's daughter

    When Sonia Tita Puopolo received a call almost one year after the attacks on 9/11, informing her that rescue workers had recovered her mother’s left hand with the wedding ring still on it, she did not know whether to laugh or cry. The ring, of all things! It was the symbol of the great love between Sonia Morales Puopolo and her husband, Dominic. It remained almost intact. Every diamond was in its right place. “For me it is a symbol of hope despite all the sadness,” says her daughter. Today, Sonia Tita Puopolo wears the ring just as her father wished. She even wrote a book about the ring. The Puopolos were a generous couple. They made donations to a number of causes: the Democratic Party, gay rights groups, AIDS and cancer programs. On Sept. 11, the mother of three children was on her way to visit her son Mark Anthony. She was on the first plane that slammed into the towers. (Henry Leutwyler / Contour by Getty Images for stern Magazine) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Barbara Spence, Maynard’s wife

    In April 2002, recovery workers found the first body parts belonging to Maynard Spence, pieces of organs and fragments of his bones. His wife, Barbara, didn't want to see them. Together with Maynard’s daughters from his first marriage, Barbara decided to cremate everything. She spread Maynard's ashes over his favorite mountain in North Carolina. Barbara wanted to remember Maynard as this tall man with a vibrant laugh, as the man who penned her short love letters. Yet, today the most important love note is the one she herself wrote, scribbled on one of those notepads lying around in hotels. Maynard, from Atlanta, had this note on him when he visited the New York branch of the insurance company he worked for. “Hey Lover Boy – hope you have a wonderful day! I’ll be thinking of you! Love Babs.” Four years ago, she got a tattoo above her heart. It features a yellow rose, a hummingbird and the date 9/11, and will forever connect her to Maynard. (Henry Leutwyler / Contour by Getty Images for stern Magazine) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Alison Crowther, Welles’ mother

    He was the man with the red bandanna, an accessory he had adopted from his grandfather. He wore the bandanna on this morning at the Trade Center, high above the southern tip of Manhattan. Welles Crowther survived the initial impact of the plane. Shortly thereafter, he called his father. It was the last that was heard from him. Months later, his mother, Alison, read an article in which witnesses recounted how they were rescued from a smoky stairwell by a man whose nose and mouth were covered by a red bandanna. Six months after the attack, rescue workers found Welles’ body under a shattered staircase. The time on his wristwatch, a Citizen Chronograph WR 200, had stopped at 2:25. The red bandanna was not recovered.

    Captions by Giuseppe di Grazia and Martin Knobbe / stern Magazine
    Translation by Anuschka Tomat (Henry Leutwyler / Contour by Getty Images for stern Magazine) Back to slideshow navigation
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