He survived 9/11, Bali and the 2004 tsunami, so is Mark Weingard the world's unluckiest (or luckiest) man?
On the morning of 9/11, Weingard was late for a meeting in the South Tower of the World Trade Centre. A year later, his fiancée was killed in the Bali bombings. Then, he spent Christmas 2004 on a Thai beach as the tsunami swept in
Susie Mesure writes interviews, news and features for the Independent on Sunday, Independent and i, and has done for the last ten years or so give or take two lengthy maternity leaves. She is interested in just about any topic, especially anything Scandinavian, food, or consumer-orientated, and used to be the Independent’s Retail Correspondent
Saturday 07 December 2013
There's a scene in the film Zelig when Woody Allen's 'human chameleon' is spotted peering anxiously over the shoulder of Adolf Hitler at the Nuremberg Rally. This follows cameos at the side of Pope Pius at the Vatican, on the baseball field with Babe Ruth, and at a party with F Scott Fitzgerald: you name it, Leonard Zelig was there. Forrest Gump pulls off something similar, popping up with Elvis Presley, John F Kennedy, Richard Nixon and in the killing fields of Vietnam.
"That," says Mark Weingard, who cites both films to help explain the tumultuous three years he spent lurching from one major world tragedy to the next, "felt like my life." Yet I can vouch that Weingard, who is sipping green tea next to me in the lobby of London's ridiculously exclusive Bulgari hotel, is no fictional construct.
It all started on 11 September, 2001. Weingard, a former trader, was due at Fuji Capital, a Japanese bank that occupied floor 79 through to 82 in the old South Tower of the World Trade Centre. Only he was running late after a sleepless night working through some system problems with his fledging interest rate-trading platform. "I rang them to say sorry. And they said, 'Don't bother coming in. A plane's just hit the World Trade Centre'." Minutes later, the second jet crashed into Fuji Capital's offices, killing 23 of their employees.
To this day, Weingard, now 47, says he has not watched any footage of the jumpers. "I refused, the day afterwards, even to turn on the TV. I've never seen any of the video coverage."
He had recently turned 35, significant because Weingard had grown up unsure he would live to see 36, his sense of mortality framed by the death of his father, a taxi-cab driver, in a car crash nine days before his own 36th birthday. "I just thought: my father had died then, his sister died very young, his mother died very young. It was just part of my family. My grandfather had seen his first wife and two of his children die before he did. Very young, all of them. It was just something in your head that life wasn't going to last forever.
"But luckily it went wrong that night. Or it went right, shall we say?"
Yet Fate was only just getting going for the self-made Mancunian, an only child who landed on his feet financially when he decided that an aptitude for numbers meant he might make it as a trader. "I thought trading would be like playing a computer game."
From luck to love, Weingard's story comes with a strong sense of something supernatural shuffling the decks. That September escape was followed 13 months later with another from a different terrorist attack, one that tragically claimed the life of his fiancée, Annika Linden. And two years after that, he again cheated death, this time in the form of the Boxing Day tsunami, in which more than 230,000 lost their lives. That tidal wave explains our meeting, but this roundabout tale starts with another chance event: how he met Annika.
The money aside – Weingard turned out to be very, very good at trading – the lifestyle had its downsides. An early failed marriage to someone he'd known since he was 15 had left him emotionally bruised. That, combined with the fact that "I didn't really have much of a life", meant "nothing very meaningful" ended up happening with the odd girl he'd meet on a Saturday night. Inspired by a personals' column he was reading on his way back from visiting his dying grandfather, he placed an ad.
Even now, he can reel it off: "His armour pierced, his wounds now healed, this soldier of love searches the barren wastelands for the one maiden who's destined to share night-times of passion and a lifetime of love in faraway places where dreams come true.
"She wrote me back a beautiful poem called 'Knights of Passion, Days of Fun' but she didn't want to send it so she screwed it up and threw it in the bin. But her mother found it and sent it. Annika had never signed the letter so I didn't know who it was from. I rang the home number and said, 'I'm the Knight of Passion'. And she said, 'Oh you must want my daughter!'." The pair duly hit it off, and nine months later took off, backpacking through Asia before settling in Singapore for another banking job, where Weingard took just two years to amass $4m in savings. He says he felt like Midas: "Everything I touched turned to gold".
The South Tower, where Mark Weingard was late for a meeting, collapses on 9/11 (AFP/Getty Images)
But things started going wrong a few years later when he swapped banking for starting an internet travel business with Annika. Initially, at least, all was well. The venture was called Hotelmine, which was intended to be the world's first global rating system for hotels. "It would have possibly succeeded, except at the same time I decided to launch something called Travelmine, which was trying to take on the Lonely Planet and do an online travel guide. We went from two to 61 people in a year, and then from 61 to zero overnight. It was quite a spectacular end. But I realised that when Nasdaq crashed, we weren't going to get any more financing." Another personal crisis followed, which saw him put on 14kg in 14 months.
But Weingard's is a life with many chapters; and he is no quitter. As one friend, Paul Charles, who knew him as a teenager, recalls: "I remember him for being extremely driven and charismatic. He was in a youth group that I belonged to and he was always very friendly and motivated. He certainly stood out for being one of the more ambitious leaders in the group."
Meanwhile, back in Singapore, he hadn't quite exhausted his gold. Another business followed, this time back in the world of finance: Switchfix was an electronic trading platform for interest rates and foreign exchange derivatives. All that's really relevant here is that it was Switchfix's systems Weingard was running in the early hours of 11 September, and it was Switchfix, later renamed Reset, that he ultimately sold to the interdealer broker ICAP for telephone-number-type sums five years ago.
With all going well for Weingard in early 2002, Providence again intervened. He celebrated making it to 36 in July with a party, getting "blinding drunk with a dozen friends" at the French fine dining restaurant Saint Pierre in Singapore, where he was living. But the hangover brought a mid-life crisis: "I suddenly thought, 'What do I do now with my > life?'." One thing that happened was he and Annika "had a few issues", splitting up shortly after his party. Bizarrely, this was to save his life, because a week or so after the split, Annika flew from Singapore to Bali with her best friend Polly Brooks to celebrate, with a bunch of friends, Polly's recent marriage. They were all in the Sari nightclub when the bomb exploded; everyone died except Polly, whom Weingard now counts as a good friend.
"If we hadn't argued, I would have gone with her, but thankfully I didn't go. You know, I mean, really thankfully, I didn't go," he recalls, dry-eyed for now. But he was on a Bali-bound plane soon enough, hunting Annika's body. "It was a very surreal experience, having to open body bags. But even then I was kind of lucky in one aspect, because two very good friends were in Bali at the time, and they met me at the airport and took me everywhere. They knew Annika very well, so they opened all the body bags and stuff like that. Because really it was a tough enough day. I felt like I was in the middle of a tunnel. I can't explain what it was like. It was a very, very tough day."
But it was also the day Weingard "understood what I had to do with my life. There's a story I tell, which probably sounds like I am making it up, but it is 100 per cent true. I was in my hotel room, naked, just wearing a towel," his laugh breaking the tension in the Bulgari lobby. "There I am, writing some thoughts down, just trying to get my head together. I was in the hotel that Annika had stayed in the night before, well, two nights before. And all of a sudden the bedroom door flew open, so I walked to the door and put my head outside to see who'd opened it, but there was nobody there. So I actually went outside the room, looked around, and then my door slammed shut! I was stood outside, in the hallway of my hotel, stark naked apart from my towel, right, just looking up and saying, 'OK, Annika! You've had your last joke!'. And I really think she was trying to turn around to me and say, 'Don't be depressed, go and do something'. This may sound stupid, but I just started laughing. It put a smile on my face, on such a hard day. I got back into my room and I think that's when I decided what I was going to do."
That something was to be the Bali-based Annika Linden Foundation, which Weingard started to help children of the bombing victims. Its work grew and grew, thanks to the $10m-plus that Reset and other firms he's invested in have donated: projects have spanned education, health and rehabilitation. With Weingard keen to expand the foundation's remit yet further, he changed its name last year to Inspirasia. He's convinced he was spared because he has a "mission; something to do here".
It's talking about some of that work that makes Weingard well up for the first – and only – time. A trip to Indonesia to buy art for a new hotel turned into a different sort of trip, when he ended up being driven around Yogyakarta, on Java, in a specially converted motorbike plus sidecar that belonged to Shareena Stari. She worked for a charity Inspirasia was helping, and had wanted to meet him. "But I walked past her because I didn't realise she was in a wheelchair," he says. They set off to visit a factory, with Stari expecting him to take a taxi rather than travel with her. But he insisted, so she wheeled herself into the sidecar, leaving him to sit on the motorbike, and off she drove.
"She told me how this contraption had allowed her to get a job and get back into life again. She made me realise what it is all about. Sometimes you forget, then you meet people like that and they inspire you. They're really, really inspirational." Now the tears come. "I love what I'm doing today. Oh, look, I've got so emotional I've lost what I was even talking about. Where were we?"
The aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami (AFP/Getty Images)
We were talking hotels: specifically Weingard's new hotel, Iniala, which is very much his new baby. You could almost call it his third child; he has two children already – "five and seven, nearly" (and another estranged wife; they're still friends, apparently). He has spent two years working on Iniala, which opens next week, on the site of his old house in Phuket, which was damaged in, yes, the Boxing Day tsunami. It will be an uber-luxury, compact affair, with just 10 rooms. The crucial factor for Weingard is that 10 per cent of the room revenues, plus 5 per cent of everything spent on anything from food to massages, will be going to help fund Inspirasia. With some seriously steep prices – think £70,000 or so for the whole place – he expects Iniala to raise at least £600,000 a year for the foundation. And more will follow, starting in 2015 with one in Malta, where Weingard now lives.
Needless to say, Weingard was there when the tsunami hit on 26 December, 2004. "That morning I woke up, looked out of my window, heard people screaming, and thought, 'The sea sounds close today'. I saw the sea just coming towards the room. It was surreal." Eleven people died that day on Natai Beach but luckily, none of Weingard's party, 17 friends and their kids celebrating Christmas, were among them – despite two of them, "Mark and Millsy", initially walking out to the beach to look for the tidal wave.
"They were jumping around, going, 'Tidal wave, tidal wave'. But the water kept coming, knocking down a fence and going towards the house, where the kids were playing in the garden. They started running, shouting 'Tidal wave!'. I remember the wave came quite slowly, so they outran it, grabbing their kids and running into the place. It was just very, very surreal. I was still in bed. Naked," he laughs; it's quite the theme. "I grabbed a pillow to hide my modesty as I ran out. We got on the roof, and another wave came again, and my friend's son goes, 'Dad, Dad, are we gonna be dead meat?'. And we were all looking at each other thinking, what is going to happen? It was a very strange situation."
He chuckles again, remembering something else. "While we were there, one of my friends was sleeping in my cinema, and he'd slept through the whole thing. He suddenly came out – we'd forgotten about him completely – and said, 'Is anything going on? The air-conditioning has gone off...' All he knew about the tsunami was that the air-con had gone off! I know it sounds light to make fun of it; I'm not making fun of it. It was just that the whole thing was kind of weird."
Weird doesn't seem to go even remotely far enough to sum up Weingard's life. But he isn't one to dwell. Buoyed by a strong faith – he was brought up a Jew and says he can't not believe in God given what has, or rather hasn't, happened to him – he adds: "I just look forward. For me, there's no point worrying about the negativity and getting angry. I have a very strong philosophy. If someone throws a ball at you, hard, the best thing you can do is hold out a bat, and that ball will go back a long way."
Judging by all he's achieved so far, he sure has a powerful swing.
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