On a hazy late afternoon in New York City, Lauren Manning breezes through the door with an upbeat smile, her husband, Greg, at her side. A gauzy medical sleeve covers her left hand following a recent surgery, but her outstretched right hand is elegantly manicured. “Oh, this was a big deal,” she says with enthusiasm. “I don’t have that many nails left — I lost parts of a few fingers on my left hand — and one of my nails grows oddly. So this manicure was huge. A milestone.”
Every day since September 11, 2001, has been a milestone for Lauren Manning. Burned over 82 percent of her body in the World Trade Center attack, she was given just a 15 percent chance of surviving. Now, a little more than two years later, she is planning a third-birthday party for her son, Tyler. “I just visited the Children’s Zoo in Central Park where we’re going to have it,” she says. “I didn’t grow up with parties like this, but he’s our only child and it brings us great pleasure.”
“What’s great,” says Greg, “is that Lauren will be there. There was a time when we couldn’t be sure …”
Lauren still remembers lying in the brilliant sunshine on the grass median outside the World Trade Center in unspeakable pain — yet “seeing every blade of grass with razor precision,” she says. Walking into the north tower, unaware that a plane had struck, she had been engulfed by a fireball as jet fuel poured down an elevator shaft and exploded. On her back in the midst of the horror, debris raining down around her, Lauren made the decision to live — for Greg and for Tyler, then 10 months old.
She had kissed them both goodbye just minutes earlier in their Greenwich Village apartment, a mile away. A senior vice president and partner at Cantor Fitzgerald who was normally at her desk on the 104th floor by 8 a.m., Lauren was running late that day.
Greg had watched the towers burning from the balcony of their apartment and was certain his wife was dead. When he found her later that morning at St. Vincent’s Hospital, he told her she would be fine and prayed that she would. During the next few months he wrote a collection of heartbreaking e-mails to family and friends documenting her day-to-day battle. They were compiled in a bestselling book, Love, Greg & Lauren, which has been issued in paperback.
It took Lauren, now age 43, as long as six months to return to the apartment she had left on September 11. “Talk about coming home late from work,” she says, laughing. But then her voice cracks. “To be home with Greg, to hug Tyler and just be around him…The sweetness of that is not easy to describe.”
It had been impossible even to envision when she first awoke in the Burn Center of New York-Presbyterian Hospital after weeks in a drug-induced coma. Her hands, horribly seared when she pushed open hot metal doors to escape the Trade Center, were immobilized in casts. Unable to talk because of a breathing tube, barely able to move, she felt trapped, helpless, a prisoner in her own body.
As she told a convention of occupational therapists in Pennsylvania several months ago, “As injured as I was, it was almost impossible to imagine I would ever regain meaningful function.” But for Lauren, it was never going to be enough simply to survive. “I wanted my life back. I wanted to dial the phone, drive the car, swing a golf club, all the things I’d previously taken for granted. Most of all, I wanted to be able to pick up and hold my son.”