The same date in October now marks two dark days for the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort.
The former jewel of Atlantic City closed on Oct. 10, the 27th anniversary of the helicopter crash that killed three of Donald Trump’s top Atlantic City executives, including Taj Mahal President Mark Grossinger Etess.
The accident on Oct. 10, 1989 sent waves of grief and shock through Trump’s organization just months before it opened the Taj — then billed as the largest casino in the world — and as the business faced major financial challenges.
The three executives killed when the helicopter crashed in a wooded Garden State Parkway median in Lacey Township were: Etess, 37, of Margate; Trump senior executive in charge of all Atlantic City operations Stephen Hyde, 43, of Linwood; and Executive Vice President of the Trump Plaza Hotel Casino Johnathan Benanav, 33, of Margate.
Two pilots also died. Federal investigators determined a faulty rotor caused the crash.
“It was devastating,” said former casino regulator Fredric E. Gushin, who oversaw the Taj’s opening for the state Division of Gaming Enforcement. He later founded Spectrum Gaming Group in 1993.
“Losing people with operational experience would cut into any organization’s ability to proceed,” he said. But in this case, with such a large facility about to open, the full impact is unknowable, he said.
All three were respected and admired leaders missed personally and professionally, said Gushin.
Trump appointed his brother Robert to replace Etess, but he didn’t last. Robert Trump quit after feeling humiliated by his older brother.
The Taj, which opened April 2, 1990, had three presidents by August. Executive shakeups continued.
Mark Etess’s son Scott Etess, now executive vice president for Excel Security Services in New York City, often visited the Taj when he was in South Jersey.
“It wasn’t necessarily a comfort, but it was always nice to go down and take a look at the placard and painting,” he said of the markers in honor of his father at the 5,200-seat Mark G. Etess Arena.
Mark Etess was considered Trump’s point man for special sporting events and a master of deals in sports and entertainment.
Scott was just 10 years old when the accident happened. Now he is the same age as his father was when he died and has two children of his own, Mark, 5, and Ashley, 2.
Taj management assured Scott Etess the family will receive the portrait and plaque after the closing, he said.
Mark Etess was born into the Grossinger family that founded the famous Grossinger’s Catskills Resort Hotel in Liberty, New York, in the early 1900s, catering to Jewish clientele and becoming an iconic mountain resort.
Mark’s brother Mitchell, seven years younger, was also an Atlantic City casino executive. He later became CEO at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, and is now semi-retired, he said.
“Having continued my career in the business to relative success, I always thought of my brother and having him with me in spirit along the way,” said Mitchell Etess.
He is certain that the accident prevented the Taj from getting off to a good start, he said.
Scott Etess said he, his mom and sister moved to New York soon after the crash.
His mom, Lauren, lives on Long Island and in New York City, he said, and his sister Rachel Etess Green lives in Westchester County, New York. Both he and Rachel graduated, like their father, from the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, where there is a scholarship in their father’s name.
Hyde was a Mormon who grew up in Utah and had seven children.
“Trump is the driving force in the Trump Organization, but Hyde was the guy who pulled everything together for him in Atlantic City,” said Daniel Lee, an analyst with the investment banking firm of Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc.
Golden Nugget Inc. Chairman Stephen Wynn called Hyde “a big old sweetie pie, a cream puff,” in interviews at the time.
Hyde was a bear of a man, gentle and unassuming, according to people who knew him, at home in the outdoors and in his role as a corporate executive.
While Trump was brash and egotistical, Hyde was humane and humble, people said at the time. Trump worked on a grand scale developing deals, but Hyde was the detail man who kept the casinos working.
Benanav was younger and had less experience, but Trump called him a rising star in the industry.
Trump told New York Magazine in February 1990 that the crash convinced him to pursue a divorce from his first wife, Ivana.
“I think the helicopter had something to do with it,” Trump said in an interview published in the March 5 issue. It showed him “how short and how fragile life is.”
Trump later married actress and model Marla Maples, then age 26.
“Emotionally was the hardest part because I lost three great friends,” said Trump, 43 at the time. “To have three of your best friends go down like this. It’s a horror.”
Trump sued the manufacturer and operator of the helicopter after the crash.
In April 1991, a federal judge ruled that Trump’s three casinos were not entitled to millions of dollars in damages to compensate for business losses allegedly arising from the deaths.
Only the families of the victims could rightfully seek damages related to wrongful death, a judge ruled.
The families settled with both the manufacturer and the operator of the craft, which Trump had leased.