By STEVE TUCKEY
who has written on insurance issues for several national media outlets.
Depending upon your age the moment you heard about Pearl Harbor, the President Kennedy assassination, and the day the towers came down, will always stay etched in your memory forever.
But for the participants in the 2001 reinsurance Rendez-Vous in Monte Carlo, that day will have particular meaning primarily for the fear for the fate of many of their colleagues who would likely have been in the building at the time, and secondarily for the impact the event would have on the survival of their industry.
Looking back from the vantage point of 10 years, reinsurance executives recalled the same shock and horror their fellow world citizens felt, and not all that much calculation of what it meant for their business.
Rod Fox, currently CEO and co-founder of the Stamford-based reinsurance brokerage Tiger Risk Partners, was at the time head of the U.S. division of the U.K.-based Benfield Group, now a part of Aon Benfield.
"I was walking out the door of the Hotel de Paris and as I was at the roundabout that overlooks the sea, Jerome Carter, who headed up the U.S. Scor operation came up to me with a horrified look on his face," he said.
Scor, along with carriers Kemper and Empire Blue Cross and brokers Aon, Guy Carpenter and Marsh, were among the businesses that had offices in the World Trade Center, and whose executives were attending the annual weeklong conference held shortly after Labor Day in Monte Carlo.
"He told me a plane had hit the World Trade Center and I thought that was weird. But I figured it was something like a small plane hitting the television antennae or something like that," Carter said.
Ten seconds later a cacophony of ringing cell phones became the first indication that history was taking place that afternoon thousands of miles away. "So I ran down the hill to my hotel room, and with several of my colleagues just stared at the horror of what was happening on the television screen," he said.
About 20 minutes later, Mrs. Fox entered the room and thought everyone was watching a Bruce Willis movie. She said nothing for several minutes, but found it peculiar that several top reinsurance executives would fly thousands of miles during the heart of the business conference to enjoy an action-packed thriller readily available at their neighborhood video store.
While there was some discussion of insurance loss resulting from such a catastrophe in the heart of the one of the major business centers of the world, most of the talk back then in 2001 in Monte Carlo centered on which colleagues would have been at the site, and on their safety.
And finally the more practical matters of how to get home took over.
On Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001, Fox and several colleagues hitched on a ride on a private jet chartered by Renaissance Re, which after a refueling stop in the Azores, made it to Bermuda, just a couple of hundred miles from home.
"The National Guard had been called and there seemed to be a guardsman for every plane. Someone made a joke that there were only six bullets on the island, but no one knew which soldier actually had them," Fox said.
After a quick trip to his Dallas home, Fox visited the Benfield office adjacent to the Towers, and heard a number of horror stories of colleagues witnessing the bodies flying down to the ground.
"We lost several good people because of that. Some leaving the business and leaving New York," he recalled.
Jamie Veghte, who currently is the head of global reinsurance operations for XL Group, recalled the knot in his stomach standing in the Hotel de Paris as the magnitude of the calamity became apparent.
"It was mainly because I knew so many people in the building (WTC)," he said. "It was a very difficult day."
After getting assurance of the safety of his brother, who worked in a nearby building, Veghte said he could not recall any discussions that day about the effect on the reinsurance industry. "It was such a mortifying event and there was concern for those next couple of days for society at large, rather than the industry," he said.
Based in London at the time, Veghte did not have any difficulty getting home.
Nikolaus von Bomhard, chairman of the board of management for Munich Re, recalled that brief visit to his hotel room to check stock quotes when he first learned of the tragedy that would affect stock quotes for the next several weeks.
"At first I could not believe what I saw with the enormity really sinking in as I saw the towers collapse. I immediately got in touch with my wife, who is American, and then with my colleagues in Munich and at the conference," he said.
Industry leaders like von Bomhard had not only the horrors of the present, but the uncertainty of the future, on their minds.
"Thus, it had been inconceivable that people would wish to cause the maximum possible harm to other people without being in a warlike situation. A new form of terrorism had manifested itself, which also showed the insurance industry its limits in accepting risks," he said.
Thomas Hess, chief economist for Swiss Re, recalled the shock of seeing people jumping out of buildings and how the terrorists could possibly justify doing such harm to innocent people.
While telephone connections were difficult, Hess finally got assurances through email that his staff was safe.
"The last thing I thought of was losses and hardening of insurance markets," he said. "We all knew it would cost the insurance and reinsurance industry a lot. It was clear also the investment side of insurance would be heavily hit. But given the human tragedy and the political consequences, these issue were second order at best."
As for the annual Monte Carlo event itself, which starts informally on a Saturday, and officially on a Sunday as old acquaintances gather and do some business, and gets down to serious work on Monday. Tuesday's events did not bring things to a screeching halt for the simple reason that many participants had no place to go since air travel was disrupted.
Attendance at planned formal sessions dwindled, as more informal gatherings took place to discuss the events.
"In one sense it has been useful having everyone here. It means it has been easy to get together and discuss this," said Marie-Louise Rossi, chief executive of the London-based International Underwriting Associationin a Risk & Insurance® interview on the scene 10 years ago.
Rendez-Vous President Jean-Philippe Thierry's remarks at the time portended those of innumerable industry leaders and government officials in the coming years as they confronted the kind of risk that had previously not been at the forefront of their agendas.
"As insurers and reinsurers our job is to manage uncertainty and risk," he said a decade ago in Monte Carlo. "Our job is to face up to this. We are always powerless in the presence of these deliberate, intentional acts of assassination and massive destructions of persons and property."
Many of the reinsurance executives who were not in Monte Carlo reacting to the horror of Sept. 11 had much more intense views blocks from the tragedy in the World Trade Center neighborhood, home of not only the New York Insurance Department but many primary and secondary insurers and brokers.
William Jewett, president of Bermuda-based Endurance Specialty Holdings Ltd., at the time was a senior vice president for Zurich Re based in Chase Manhattan Plaza, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center site.
"I was in the office and heard a loud noise and what looked like confetti in the air. From a colleague's offices that faced the World Trade Center, we saw a small hole in the building and then the flash of the second impact" he said.
After the safe evacuation of their office, Jewett was able to board one of the first ferries out of Manhattan to the New Jersey town of Highlands, near his Rumson home. "And then just as we were going under the Verrazano Bridge, I saw the towers collapse," he said.
Jewett worked out of Zurich's provisional office in Stamford for several weeks. It was an anxious time worrying about insurance colleagues who might have been in the building. "It was a time of uncertainty and fear as people struggled to deal with this national tragedy," he recalled.
In addition, there was concern for friends and neighbors from his suburban area, which gained some notoriety for its concentration of people suffering losses from Sept. 11 as the subject of Gail Sheehy's book several years later called "Middletown, America--One Town's Passage from Trauma to Hope."
"They would do a tally in the ferry parking lot to see which cars hadn't moved.Some of the cars were there for quite some time just waiting for their owners to come back," he recalled.
September 1, 2011
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