Three Irish brothers — John, Mark and Ron Clifford — were thrust onto the world stage by a set of unspeakably tragic circumstances on September 11, 2001.
They gathered with family members in a Cork city cemetery yesterday to remember their sister, their niece, and the little girl’s godmother who were all killed in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
“We’re coping OK,” John said. “After the atrocity, our family came together and we discussed it. For the first four years, whenever you turned on the TV, you saw the towers coming down. It was in your face, every time on the news.
“To most people, it was just two planes crashing into the towers. But to us, it was Ruth and Juliana.”
Their sister Ruth Clifford McCourt, 44, and her four-year-old daughter Juliana were on a surprise trip to Disneyland that blue sky day over New York.
They were passengers on the hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston to California that was flown into the south tower of the World Trade Center.
Juliana’s godmother, Paige Farley Hackel, was on the second aircraft — American Airlines Flight 11 — which smashed into the first tower.
And in another remarkably tragic coincidence, Ruth, Mark and John’s brother Ron was on his way to a business meeting in the Twin Towers at the time of the attack.
He was standing in the lobby of the World Trade Center when Paige’s flight crashed into the building.
Despite being hit by burning fuel and falling debris, he helped drag a badly injured woman to shelter.
His act of heroism was caught on FBI cameras located on the buildings. Unfortunately, the woman he helped died days later from her injuries.
The brothers and their families spent yesterday remembering and celebrating their loved ones’ lives.
“Ruth loved Ireland. She brought Juliana to Ireland and I saw her take her first steps,” John said.
Mark said Ruth is in their minds all the time — but especially so this weekend.
He said it was almost “overwhelming” to be part of such an enormous and horrific terrorist event.
“The memories are still there. The pain is still there,” Mark said.
“I remember visiting ground zero three weeks after the attack — the carnage, the sadness, the devastation, the smell. The place was still burning when we were there. I will never forget that.”
But both brothers said their family will be forever grateful to the army of volunteers who helped identify Ruth and Juliana’s remains.
Ruth’s remains were identified by dental records a year after the attack. It took three more years before little Juliana’s remains were identified using DNA.
John and Mark said it was very important for the family to be able to bring their sister and niece back to Ireland for burial.
“That was a huge comfort,” John said. “I want to acknowledge the unsung heroes who sifted through every single bit of rubbish, every single bit of debris and every single fragment of bone to identify people.”
The 9/11 attacks, which Mark describes as “the slaughter of the innocents” saw 2,976 people die in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, with 2,749 killed in the Twins Towers attacks alone. But despite the human tragedy and the lives lost over the last decade in the “war on terror”, little has been achieved, say the brothers.
“What did it achieve; what did it prove?” John asked. Both brothers are frustrated and appalled by the delay in bringing to trial key suspects, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.
“The fact that this has been passed on to third American administration is frustrating,” Mark said.
“These people should be put in front of a jury of their peers and answer for their crimes,” he said.
Despite the tragedy, the family has reason for hope and celebration.
A new grandchild was born three weeks ago — Kayla Juliana — named after Ruth’s daughter. “She has given us a huge uplift this month. Our focus will be on her,” John said.
The family plans to unveil a new three-tiered gravestone at Ruth and Juliana’s grave over the coming days.