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Thursday November 23rd, 2017 8:11AM

Bike path victims reflected a buzzing, diverse New York City

By The Associated Press
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One of the dead was a mother of young sons from Belgium. Five had traveled from Argentina to New York with a tight-knit group of classmates to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their graduation.

The other victims were Americans: One a new college graduate working as a software engineer, the other a doting son who had recently lost nearly 100 pounds and was getting a bike ride in between meetings at his World Trade Center job.

Those killed in the New York bike path attack reflect a city that is a melting pot, a magnet for international visitors, and a business and technology capital.

"They saw New York as a special place to be," said Mayor Bill de Blasio, "and we now and forever will consider them New Yorkers."

The victims were mowed down by a rental truck Tuesday afternoon near the World Trade Center. Police called it a terrorist attack, saying the driver was an Uzbek immigrant who "did it in the name of ISIS."

The largest group of victims came from Rosario, Argentina, the country's third-largest city and the hometown of international soccer star Lionel Messi and guerrilla leader Che Guevara. They had made the trip courtesy of one of their well-heeled friends, who was also among those who perished.

"It hurts us to think that these are people who walked the same school halls as we did or that studied in our same classrooms," said Agustin Riccardi, a senior at the victims' alma mater.

President Mauricio Macri said in Buenos Aires that the attack "hit all Argentines hard."

On Wednesday, friends and relatives began remembering the victims — and recounting the circumstances that led them to New York.

___

ARGENTINA: A GROUP OF FRIENDS

Three decades had passed since their 1987 graduation from the Polytechnic School of Rosario, Argentina. But the Argentine victims of Tuesday's truck attack, most of them architects, had remained close friends, getting together several times a year.

The five dead were among a group of 10 friends marking their graduation with a tour of New York and Boston, where a survivor of the group lived.

They had gone on a bike ride through Central Park on Tuesday before turning south, to lower Manhattan.

"They were pedaling in lines of two, chatting, laughing, enjoying the ride. My husband was the last one in the line, when he felt a speeding car, and then the truck that zoomed by" at high speed, Cecilia Piedrabuena, the wife of survivor Ariel Benvenuto, told an Argentine radio station. "The truck took away his friends, and he saw them all scattered on the ground."

One victim, Hernan Diego Mendoza, was an architect and father of three who designed the home of his close friend, Estanislao Beas.

"The news destroyed my wife and I," Beas said. "We had a tight bond. We cared for him so much. It's incredible that this happened to him and that he was there at that time."

The Argentine foreign ministry identified the other victims as Ariel Erlij, Diego Enrique Angelini, Alejandro Damian Pagnucco and Hernan Ferruchi.

The reunion trip was partially financed by Erlij, the chief executive of Ivanar, an Argentine steel products manufacturing company, according to Argentina's La Nacion newspaper.

Another classmate , Martin Ludovico Marro, of Newton, Massachusetts, near Boston, was being treated at a Manhattan hospital.

In Rosario, a minute of silence was observed at the high school Wednesday, and the light-blue and white Argentina flag was flown at half-staff. The school planned a candlelight vigil Wednesday evening.

Only days earlier, before flying to the U.S., they had posed for a group photo, all of them wearing T-shirts with the word "Libre," or "Free" — meaning free from any responsibilities, said Piedrabuena, the wife of survivor Ariel Benvenuto.

___

BELGIUM: ANN-LAURE DECADT

Ann-Laure Decadt, 31, the mother of a 3-year-old and a 3-month-old son, had traveled with her relatives to New York from a rural town in Belgium.

Decadt belonged to a prominent family that owns a venerable animal feed business in Staden, a town of 11,000 some 60 miles (100 kilometers) west of Brussels.

The family said in a statement that "she was riding a bike and apparently was surprised by a vehicle that came from behind." Her husband and children had not traveled with her. Other family members escaped injury.

Decadt grew up in the town and was active in its social scene, taking part in the youth council and village fairs, said Staden's mayor, Francesco Vanderjeugd.

"Ann-Laure meant so much to us in town," he said. "It is an attack in New York, but also one on our community."

Flags flew at half-staff in the village, and a condolence register was opened at the community center Wednesday — All Saints' Day, when Belgium traditionally remembers the dead.

Johan Verstervete, a friend of the family, said: "We knew her as a very spontaneous person, very dynamic, loving her family and her children."

Vanderjeugd said he was delighted when he first heard that Decadt was going to New York. He even sent the family a message saying: "Wow, you'll have a great time there, with Halloween and the New York marathon and all."

"And then," he said, "this happens."

___

NEW JERSEY: DARREN DRAKE

Darren Drake, a 32-year-old project manager for Moody's Investors Service at the World Trade Center, had recently lost a lot of weight — 93 pounds — after undergoing lap band surgery. He was out for a bike ride between meetings when the truck hit and killed him.

"While other people would take cigarette or coffee breaks, he would go out and ride the bike for 15 to 20 minutes," his father, Jimmy Drake, told reporters.

Drake used to serve on the school board in New Milford, in northern New Jersey, where he was a native and lived with his parents. He had a master's degree in business administration and was working toward a second master's degree, at Stevens Institute of Technology. He was a voracious reader and enjoyed listening to audio books.

Jimmy Drake said he and his son were close. They went hunting and fishing together, and Jimmy drove Darren every day to the terminal in suburban Hoboken so he could catch a train to his job in the city.

He sobbed as he recounted seeing his son's body at the morgue.

"Just picture that face. He really looked like he was having a nice dream," he said.

He called the Uzbek immigrant suspected in the attack a "psycho" but said he's "not angry at all."

"I'm hurt," he said. "I'm absolutely hurt."

___

NEW YORK CITY: NICHOLAS CLEVES

Nicholas Cleves, 23, died not far from his home in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. He was a software engineer and web developer.

Online profiles show he went to Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York City and graduated last year from Skidmore College with a degree in computer science. He had been working as a software engineer for the Unified Digital Group.

Cleves described himself on his Facebook page as a "nerdy white boy." The most recent photo posted there showed him posing with some friends next to a Darth Vader figure at a Star Wars exhibit.

"Our hearts go out to Nicholas's mother, Monica Missio, who is a member of the Skidmore class of 1981, the other members of his family, and his closest friends," Skidmore President Philip A. Glotzbach wrote on the school's website.

Outlining his aspirations on LinkedIn, Cleves wrote that he was "searching for ways in which technology can be used to make positive impacts on our everyday lives."

Alex Silverstein, who hired Cleves as a Unified Digital Group intern during his senior year in college, wrote a glowing recommendation on LinkedIn.

"I immediately recognized his intelligence and desire to know more about everything," Silverstein wrote. "He is great with customers — polite, considerate, and patient. This is extremely useful emotional intelligence that you can't put a price on."

___

Rey reported from Rosario, Argentina. Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania. Contributing were Associated Press writers Hernan Alvarez in Rosario; Victor Caivano, Almudena Calatrava and Luis Andres Henao in Buenos Aires; Raf Casert in Brussels; Philip Marcelo in Boston; and David Crary in New York.

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