Battling death at the World Trade Center

September 7, 2011

This is an excerpt from Unmeasured Strength, Lauren Manning’s account of surviving the 9/11 attack at the World Trade Center and her struggle to recover from severe burn injuries.

The flames were consuming me, and as the first searing pain hit, I thought, This can’t be happening to me.

The fire embraced my body tighter than any suitor, touching every inch of my flesh, clawing through my clothes to spread its hands over me, grabbing left and right, rifling over my shoulder blades, down my back, wrapping my legs in agony, gripping my left arm, and taking hold of both my hands. I covered my face, but I could not scream. My voice was powerless. I was in a vacuum, the air depleted of oxygen, and everything was muffled. The screams, the roar of the fire, the shattering sound of breaking glass— all that was very far away. I was suspended in space.

Then my captor slammed me forward. I lurched toward the doors in a desperate effort to get away. As I did, something— I have no idea what— hit me in the back of the head. For a moment, I was pushed against the glass; then I was sucked backward again by a monstrous inhalation that pulled me toward its heart. I battled to escape, fighting my way through the outer doors as the fire grew over me, spreading farther down my head, my arms, my back, my legs. Then, abruptly, I was spit from the fire’s mouth out onto the sidewalk, where I had been standing just seconds before.

The fire was all around me now, a shroud of flame. I was suffocating with every gasp of charring fumes. I saw nothing but concrete and pavement, but I knew there was a narrow strip of grass on the other side of West Street, in front of the World Financial Center. I knew with absolute certainty that I had to get there, that the patch of grass offered my only chance to put out the flames, and that if I did not push myself toward it with a razor-edged act of will, I would be annihilated, devoured by unbearable pain and terror.

I felt myself sliding toward blackness— and then something primal rose up from the deepest part of my being. My mind was flooded with a vision of Tyler, who’d not celebrated his first birthday.

I can’t leave my son. I haven’t had him long enough. I can’t abandon him. I can’t go out like this, running across the street in flames to die in a gutter.

All my strength was now focused on a single goal. I had to reach that strip of grass.

Without breaking stride I was already running toward it. I could think of nothing else. As I came off the curb, one of my ankles turned under me and snapped. I felt a momentary crushing sensation; for a split second, the focus of my pain shifted, and then the fire took over again. I pushed myself over the cement median. The journey seemed to last for hours.

Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening. This pain can’t be real.

I prayed for death, in that unspeakable way that people who are experiencing unimaginable pain can. As if summoned, Death seemed to be running beside me, dancing and beckoning, smelling of burned cloth and flesh. But I didn’t believe that even Death would deal a final blow to the pain and end my agony.

I reached the grass and dropped down. I began to roll. A man came charging across the grass toward me. He ripped off his jacket and used it to help smother the flames, and as he bent over me, he became the focus of all my pain and anger.

Shouting, I implored him to get me to a hospital, to please help me find a way out of this hell. I told him my husband Greg’s cell phone number and yelled at him to call Greg. “Tell him to get down here and help me!”

At least three or four others had also reached the grass. At first they’d been screaming, but now they were silent and lay motionless on the bank. I saw more people start to pour out of the tower, some stunned, mouths agape in shock, others screaming in horror.

My clothes had been incinerated or torn away. I was writhing in pain, but my adversary’s prolonged and intimate assault was only just beginning. The burn enveloped me, squeezing tighter and tighter. Though its flames were extinguished, its boiling venom was spreading, moving deeper and deeper, its pincers tearing through layer after layer of dermis, fat, and muscle. I twisted and turned, trying to escape, but it kept me effortlessly in its grasp, a weightless force with infinite strength to hold on to me. The pain intensified, breaking upon me in pounding waves, each threatening to send me under.

The air was filled with noise, but I was in such agony that I heard only vague, distant sounds: the impact of objects slamming into the ground, the sirens of emergency vehicles, the grinding thunder of bending steel and breaking glass. Far above, a dark cloud belched from the punctured sides of Tower One with such velocity that the tower seemed to cut through the blue ocean of sky, trailing a deep, black scar in its wake. It seemed so incongruous that the same force that tore a gash so high up on the building could have created the fire that engulfed me in the lobby so far below.

The pain kept burning through every ounce of my being. I prayed to somehow climb out of my body to escape it. I rocked back and forth in a futile effort to break free. Again I felt myself losing hold, as if my fingers were being pried off a ledge one at a time as I dangled over an abyss.

I pleaded with God: I can’t leave, I can’t leave my son. I haven’t had enough time with him. I worked so hard to have him. I can’t leave him now.

The impulse to let go grew overwhelming, and I knew I had to push beyond the seductive veil of softness that offered to envelop me and usher me deeply into the bowels of death. My eyes closed, and once again I saw my son’s face.

Had it all been in vain? The thought that my love for my son might not be enough, that I might fail to return to him and to all those who needed me, was devastating. I knew I had to do everything possible to get back to him. This was it, the moment when I had to fight to hold on with the last full measure of my strength.

I decided to live.

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