How We Remember: Our Lives Since 9/11

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Michael Otten

Otten, now 40, was an assistant vice president at Mizuho Capital Markets Corp., working on the 80th floor of the south tower on Sept. 11, 2001. He now lives and works on Long Island.

I was on the 80th floor that morning. We heard a loud explosion when the first tower was hit. A bunch of us were at the window trying to see what had happened when one of the managing directors came and yelled at us to get out. We took the stairs down. We tried to talk a little bit, even to strangers, to keep everybody from panicking. Some women had left high heels on the platforms between flights, and there were coffee cups under the railings. But we were going down at a good clip. I was already at the 46th floor when they made an announcement in the building: Tower 1 — the north tower — had been hit by a commuter plane, and Tower 2 was secure. There was a big collective sigh of relief.

I continued on to 44, a transfer floor, to get the elevator back up to the office. I had to wait and when I finally got in an elevator, there was this kid, maybe 19 or 20, with his backpack blocking the door. We must have waited about 20 seconds for this guy. I remember I was about to snap at him to move out of the way so that the doors could close, and just then the second plane hit. The elevator shook unbelievably. I thought we were going to into a free fall, but we didn't. Everybody ran out. There was so much dust. We merged back into the stairwell. When we finally got out on Church St., people told us "just run," and then with equal emphasis, "and don't look up." But I think it's human nature to stop and look. We saw how the beams were mangled 78 or 80 floors above us.

How 9/11 Changed My Life

In their own words

The Survivor

• The Burden of The Living
An executive made it to safety, but is wracked with guilt knowing his firefighter brother-in-law did not

The Widow

• Death in the Public Eye
An actress accustomed to exposure is stunned by the very public death of her husband

The Firefighter

• It Was All Part of the Job
A lieutenant with the FDNY survives that day, only to be forced into retirement due to crippling lung problems

The City Councilor

• The War Zone
The politican responsible for the World Trade Center's district went from worrying about potholes to worrying about poisonous air

The Cop

•The Darkest Moment
After spending months raking debris for remains, an NYPD officer finds solace in therapy

The Complete Coverage

The 5th Anniversary of September 11


•Photo Essay: 9/11 First Responders
September 11th has left its mark on these heroes

•Photo Essay: 9/11 The Turning Point
How Americans have tried to commemorate the tragedy across the nation

•Video: Memories In The Landscape
Historian Niall Ferguson looks at the effects of 9/11 from the year 2031

I walked all the way to 50th St before going to Penn Station and catching the train home. I was so thankful to see my family again, but I found out my brother-in-law, Michael, who was a fireman in Midtown, had been somewhere in the south tower when it collapsed. Not even one tiny little piece of him was ever recovered. He left my sister and three kids, and that is what makes this so hard for me now. I worked in that building for seven years, and I spent more time there in those years than I did in my own house. My brother-in-law went in there for just 10 or 15 minutes before the tower crashed down on him. It's something I think about all the time. I ran out to save myself and he ran in to save a couple thousand people. Losing anybody is tough, but it made it a little bit tougher that he was such a great person: a great father to his kids, a great husband to my sister, and a great friend.

Altogether I knew 22 or 24 people who died, including that managing director who told us to get out. I go through the newspaper every year when they have the list of people who died, and I highlight the names of the people I used to know. Am I affected? Yeah. I'm dealing with a lot of survivor's guilt. The sadness is there. I try to be funny and I think I'm moderately successful, but it happens probably a couple times a day that I think about Sept. 11, and how things have changed so much. I was on a decent track — I wouldn't say the fast track, but a decent track — to be able to retire comfortably in 15 or 20 years, maybe even less. Now I have a new job in the mortgage business. I left Mizuho in October 2002. They were cutting back because of the market downturn, and I had resolved that I would never work above any 10th floor again. Coming here, working in what to me is a new industry, almost like a kid just out of college, it's kind of tough. But I still look back and miss those days working in the Trade Center, working with all those great people.

Some people have suggested therapy, but I think that might make it worse. Reliving everything and having someone critique my feelings, I don't think I'm at a place yet where that's going to be a good thing. Some people have said, "You have to put it behind you." I just look at them and say, "I don't think you guys were in there with us, and I don't think you lost someone who was a godfather to your kids." I bet there will come a time where it might be good, but right now I'm just not ready for that. I try to think about being thankful to be alive, to treat people better, to not get as angry with my kids. I'm not sure yet if I've been successful.

—As told to Laura Blue

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