Unmeasured Strength

by Lauren Manning

Unmeasured Strength

Hardcover, 252 pages, Henry Holt & Co, List Price: $25 | purchase

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Book Summary

Traces the decade-long recovery journey of a Sept. 11 survivor who suffered burns on more than 80 percent of her body, describing her experiences during the attacks and the ways she needed to change to renew her commitments to life and her loved ones.

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Excerpt: Unmeasured Strength

Unmeasured Strength

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.

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.

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.

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.

From Unmeasured Strength by Lauren Manning. Copyright 2011 by Lauren Manning. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.

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