Co-op CEO flees hotel after World Trade Center attacks

By Lynn R. Parks

Finally, Paul Bienvenue had to look away. He was watching the twin towers of the World Trade Center for signs that they might be getting ready to fall, but the sight of bodies plummeting to the ground from upper stories of the towers was too much.
“We were close enough that we could hear the thuds when they hit,” he said. “I could hear the screaming. After six or seven bodies, I turned my head.” But these weren’t the first bodies he had seen. Just minutes earlier, after hearing what would turn out to be the first of two planes to crash into the towers, he was standing at his hotel room window watching paper float from broken tower windows to the ground below. “I saw a good-sized piece of debris falling out of the smoke,” he said. “I watched it, then looked below to see where it landed. I realized that it was a body.” Whether it was male or female, he could not tell. The person was wearing pants, he said, and had no outward signs of having been injured or burned. Bienvenue, 61, Seaford, is president and chief operating officer of the Delaware Electric Cooperative, Greenwood. He and eight representatives of electric cooperatives in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia were in New York City on Tuesday, Sept. 11, to decide on the price of bonds that were to be issued that day by Old Dominion, a cooperative-owned power supplier. They had traveled to New York the day before by airplane from Richmond, landing in La Guardia Airport.

Eight of the nine men stayed Monday night in the Hilton Millennium Hotel, about 150 yards from the north tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. They planned to meet in the hotel lobby at 9 Tuesday morning, then journey to the J. P. Morgan Securities building at 60 Wall St. to discuss the bond sale. “I was ready by 8:15, so I sat down with the newspaper,” Bienvenue said. “I watched some of the Today show, then as 9 was drawing near got up to put the newspaper in my briefcase. As I was doing that, I heard an airplane pass over the hotel.”
Bienvenue said that there was no question that the noise he heard was a passenger plane. “I was on the 29th floor and the plane was about 500 feet above me. When a 757 goes 500 feet over your head, you’re going to recognize it.” A second later, he heard the loud noise as the plane crashed into the tower. “I knew it was an airplane, and I knew it hit the tower,” he said. “I didn’t know if it was a mistake, or terrorism. But I remembered that in 1993, terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center, so I recognized that terrorism was a possibility.” Bienvenue stood at his hotel window, as black smoke billowed from the large hole in the side of the north tower. He watched papers float out of the smoke and drift to the ground. And he saw the first body.

As the hour approached 9, Bienvenue left his hotel room and took the elevator to the lobby. There he joined up with other members of his party. “Everyone was aware of what was going on. It was impossible not to be aware,” he said. “The explosion had been very significant.” Not as significant, however, as the one that was to come a few minutes later. “We were looking out the window and saw the explosion from the second hit,” he said. The airplane that hit the second tower approached from the other side of the building from the hotel. Even so, the impact when it hit was “much greater,” Bienvenue said. “Maybe because it was lower, or maybe because it was going at a higher speed, but our building shook when it hit. You could feel the building rocking. And we all knew what it was. If there had been any doubt about the first one, the second one left no doubt.”

People in the lobby with Bienvenue were distraught, “to put it mildly,” he said. “Many were crying, wringing their hands, really upset. Many people were crying in fear. There was a not of noise.” In the midst of that, Bienvenue began to worry that the first tower might fall to the ground, from having been weakened by its strike and from the concussion of the second hit. He backed away from the window and sought shelter in an alcove about 30 feet from the window, a move that in retrospect was as effective as “moving your deck chair away from the railing on the Titanic,” he said. “If that tower came over, nothing was protecting me.”

Just then, a hotel security officer announced over a bullhorn that hotel management wanted everyone to stay in the lobby, something Bienvenue and his co-workers were not ready to do. “The thought went through my head that this guy might lock us down,” Bienvenue said. “I looked at Vernon Brinkley,” a resident of Parksley, Va., “and said, ‘Let’s get the devil out of here.’ We caught the eyes of the others and we went out through the side door.”
Five of the men left the hotel lobby together. Two others in the lobby were unaware that they were leaving but left soon after. The eighth man was still in his room. The men emerged onto Fulton Street and ran in the opposite direction from the twin towers “until we felt we were safe from the fall,” Bienvenue said. They were not alone. “A lot of people were moving away from the scene,” Bienvenue said. They were walking quickly, but calmly, he said.

The five men headed toward Wall Street and the J. P. Morgan Securities building, where they were to meet Dan Walker, Richmond, the only man of the nine who did not stay in the Hilton Millennium. After walking about 10 blocks, they met up with Walker in front of the J. P. Morgan building, which had been evacuated, and then the six of them boarded a subway headed for Penn Station. At Penn Station, which was still open and operating, they bought tickets for a 10:40 train to Richmond. But before they could board, the trip was canceled and the station closed. Once again, they found themselves on the street. They continued their walk uptown, headed to 52nd Street and the office of the attorney handling the bond transaction, about 20 blocks away.
They got there at about noon and were able to call their families. “We had been trying to call all along using cell phones, but never could get one to work,” Bienvenue said.“Dan Walker had been able to call his office and ask that someone relay messages to our spouses that we were OK.” Even so, when Bienvenue reached his wife Connie, she was “distraught,” he said. “She knew that I was staying in the financial district, but she didn’t know which hotel,” he said. “For all she knew, I could have been in the towers when they were hit.” The men learned that ferries were operating on the East River, taking people to Hoboken, N.J. Using the subway and about 2 miles of sidewalk, they made the journey to the ferry stop, where they stood in line for nearly 3 hours before boarding the boat. Finally, at about 4:30, they got on the ferry and left Manhattan. “When we were crossing the river, we could see all the smoke,” Bienvenue said. They had learned when they walked through Times Square and past its electronic signs of the collapse of the towers.
Once in New Jersey, they were required to walk through temporary showers to wash the dust from their clothes. Wet, dirty and exhausted, the men boarded a train for Summit, N.J., where they were met by the attorney. They spent the night in Bridgewater, N.J., where they met up with the man who was still in his hotel room when they fled. The seven of them returned to Richmond on Wednesday in a rented van. The two men who left the lobby shortly after the group of five had made their way to Battery Park on the tip of Manhattan. They caught a tug boat across the river to New Jersey, traveled by train to Philadelphia and on to Richmond. The bond deal that had called the nine men to New York City was completed two weeks later — in Richmond.

Bienvenue walked into his house in Seaford at about 4:30 the afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 12. By that time, the hotel that he had fled the morning before had been evacuated and had caught on fire. “I was glad to be home,” he said. “I truly feel for the many people that this affected. But I am fortunate that I haven’t been haunted in any way.” Even with the memory of those bodies falling to earth, “I have had no dreams, and haven’t been waking up in the middle of the night. I am very fortunate.” Even so, Bienvenue has not changed his mind about New York City: “It never was my favorite town,” he said. And if given the opportunity to decline, he would just as soon forego such experiences in the future. “If this is history in the making, the next time I’ll pass,” he said.

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