After Burn Injuries, Sept. 11 Survivor Shows 'Strength'

No company suffered on Sept. 11 as much as the bond broker Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost 658 people. One of the few employees to survive that day was Lauren Manning, who was in the lobby of the World Trade Center's North Tower when the first plane hit.

Manning had been rushing to an elevator and was instantly engulfed in flames that came into the lobby, leaving her with burns on more than 80 percent of her body.

In the book Manning has written about her long recovery, there's a photo of her on the cover standing defiantly on a Manhattan street, hands on her hips, in a sleeveless dress that exposes her burned arms.

"It's a photo of strength," Manning says. "I wanted to be powerful; I needed to be. I had to fight against an injury that threatened to kill me not over the period of only that day but for months to come."

When the attacks occurred, Manning was a hard-charging 40-year-old Cantor Fitzgerald executive who'd just had her first child. Dr. Roger Yurt, who heads the burn center at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York, says that Manning's odds of survival were just 25 percent when she arrived.

"Somebody with an injury as big as she had has compromise of the immune function, and so we are trying to get their burn wound healed as soon as possible so that they don't get infection in their wounds," Yurt says.

'I Will Never Forget It'

Manning's pain was so severe she had to be put in a coma to be treated. She awoke weeks later, unable to talk or move very much. Her husband Greg Manning waited a while before telling his wife how many of her colleagues at Cantor had died.

"We were simply told [to] let Lauren ask questions and answer those questions — [but] don't volunteer information, don't jump ahead, don't go, 'By the way, something absolutely horrible has happened,'" Greg Manning says.

Finally, Lauren Manning asked her husband what had occurred.

"And on that particular day, [Greg] told me, and I will never forget it ... I was racked by pain, but it seemed secondary to all of the news that I heard of all of my friends and colleagues who were gone, and I took absolute personal responsibility that they wouldn't get another one, they weren't going to take me out," she says.

Doctors said Manning had about 18 months to regain flexibility in her limbs or she might lose it forever. She took hours of physical therapy every day, and endured skin grafts and painful hydrotherapy to clean her wounds. She was fed through a feeding tube.

"It was one of my great milestones when the doctor said I could have a piece of ice," Manning says. "My mouth was so dry and parched and to feel it finally slide down my throat, I felt like I was quenching a thirst that had existed quite literally for months."

A Slow Recovery

Slowly but surely, she learned to walk and use her badly burned hands. Manning is the daughter of a Marine and had worked for years in the unforgiving pressure cooker of Wall Street.

She says that taught her the determination to get better.

"You just have to move on," she says. "Why not? What's the alternative? Have your pity party. Don't make it last too long."

Manning also had to live in a certain amount of denial about all that had happened to her.

"In a sense I created a charade of how I would be," she says. "How I would look to the world, how I would interact. I was incredibly positive. I never acknowledged a sense of feeling weak or incredibly fatigued, and I didn't dwell on the physical changes."

Those changes were considerable. The skin on her back and arms was scarred. She'd lost part of an ear and the tips of some of her fingers.

She's had multiple surgeries, especially on her hands. Her long blonde hair has grown back, she dresses well and she no longer attracts stares like she used to. Yurt says Manning's attitude played no small part in her recovery.

"What I learned from her is the importance of your makeup and your determination and your ability to fight through things," he says. "A lot of people would have given up and never made it as far as she's made it."

Because Manning lived when so many others died, she has become an icon of survival. She sometimes gives interviews and makes public appearances. And once a year she and her husband attend the memorial service for Cantor Fitzgerald employees. This weekend, they're doing so again.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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