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NY insurance execs remember personal, professional impacts of 9/11

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NY insurance execs remember personal, professional impacts of 9/11

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed the way the insurance industry works forever. They also left an indelible mark on many who work in the industry and who experienced the tragic events.

David Priebe, chairman of Marsh & McLennan Cos. Inc.-owned reinsurance broker Guy Carpenter, and his team were preparing for meetings in the World Trade Center's South Tower when the first plane hit the North Tower, which also housed many Marsh & McLennan staff. He remembers the reverberation and seeing "shrapnel, debris, smoke streaming across the windows."

On evacuating the complex, he recalls seeing flames issuing from the higher floors of the North Tower and Marsh & McLennan stationery on the floor.

"That day still lives with me — every minute," he said in an interview.

Marsh McLennan lost 295 staff and 63 consultants that day. Guy Carpenter also lost its headquarters and its data center at a time when the industry needed to assess its exposure and ensure that coverage remained available.

"In a week, we had to rebuild Guy Carpenter," Priebe said.

Making sense of chaos

Bob Hartwig, then chief economist of the Insurance Information Institute, recalls being about four blocks away from the World Trade Center. He remembers it as "mayhem in Manhattan." After the second tower was struck and news came in about the attack on the Pentagon, there was worry that there might be more to come.

"It was not clear the entirety of that day whether or not the attacks were over," Hartwig said. "Getting a sense of the true scope and scale of the attacks was very, very difficult."

Hartwig did not have much time to make sense of the situation. Within minutes of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, he was "inundated with media requests" from reporters asking about how much the attacks would cost insurers and whether they would pay, amid rumors that there were widespread terrorism exclusions, or that war exclusions would apply.

"My assessment was that these claims would be paid by the industry. It was never more than a transient question as to whether or not they would be," he said.

Gregory Serio, who was then New York's insurance superintendent and also served as a volunteer fire chief, remembers it as "the craziest day in my life."

The insurance industry, and the population more generally, pulled together to tackle the situation and plot a course forward. Guy Carpenter's client teams "camped out" in clients' offices as they worked to determine the event's impact.

"Our clients were amazing in terms of how they came and rallied to support," Priebe said.

Personal touch

Serio was particularly impressed with the personal engagement from the CEOs of life and property and casualty insurers who traveled to New York.

"It was almost claims adjusting by CEO. It was really pretty amazing," he said. "I think that is something that will always stay with me."

Serio particularly recalls the visit from then-chairman of Lloyd's of London Sax Riley, who flew across the Atlantic to view the situation on the ground.

"I was really gratified that he came over, took the time to do it, saw what we were dealing with and acted accordingly in making sure the Lloyd's claims were paid," Serio said.

The terrorist attacks also helped the industry prepare some for future disasters. While many have had to get to grips with working as teams remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, Priebe said Guy Carpenter had to make that adjustment when it lost its headquarters on Sept. 11, 2001.

"We are now here in this COVID world, and I think that experience helped position us to be as effective as we are today," he said.