For Cork-born Ron Clifford, Osama Bin Laden’s death only reinforced his quest for justice on behalf of his sister Ruth and niece Juliana, who would have been 14 today. He spoke to John Riordan.
THERE WERE MORE helicopters than usual in the Manhattan sky on Monday as New York woke up to a world without Osama Bin Laden.
The impromptu celebrations at Ground Zero and Times Square that had greeted Barack Obama’s dramatic announcement had been replaced by renewed vigilance.
It’s a little quieter over the Hudson River in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, the suburban sanctuary where Ron Clifford has lived for more than a decade, since before the day his life changed forever.
Like the rest of his neighbourhood, Clifford’s house has a rustic quality and he knows about its history, dating back more than a century. He knows that a high-profile Manhattan judge was its first owner. Clifford, a software executive from Blackrock in Cork, is the third.
He lives close enough to New York City to be surrounded by the great and the good, but lives far enough away to provide escape. Almost ten years ago, on September 11, 2001, the house, his wife and his daughter’s birthday were on his mind as a ferry out of lower Manhattan carried him to Jersey City, away from the incredible destruction he was lucky to escape.
Clifford watched the carnage, still gripping the old rosary beads with which he had prayed alongside the horrifically-injured Jennianne Maffeo. He had found the beads several months previously while clearing out the top floor of his still relatively new home. He had found Maffeo, blind and panicked in the lobby of the Marriott World Trade Center, begging for reassurance that she wouldn’t die.
When he finally made it home, the sense of relief didn’t last long. After he washed the grey dust and burnt human skin from his body, the incomprehensible day started to close in around him. His sister Ruth was missing, according to his brother-in-law, David. As was their four-year-old daughter Juliana (who would have been 14 today) and Ruth’s best friend Paige Farley-Hackel. He would subsequently discover that the lady from whom he bought the house in 1999 had lost a 23-year-old son, Brian. She had also owned those rosary beads.
“Strange, isn’t it?” he says.
IT wasn’t uncommon for Ruth McCourt, who lived in Connecticut, to change her flight plans and hang out an extra night at Paige Farley-Hackel’s house in Massachusetts.
But their fate was sealed when McCourt changed her flight to United Airlines Flight 175 and Farley-Hackel opted to use frequent flyer miles on American Airlines Flight 11, both out of Logan Airport in Boston.
Paige’s plane was the first to reach its awful destination, ploughing into the North Tower just before 9am. As Clifford tended to Maffeo and tried to get to grips with the apocalyptic conditions around him, he watched the second plane hit the South Tower, unaware of who was inside.
The deep shuddering sound of the impact still haunts him to this day — a Harley Davidson revving up will often alarm him. It took six months of counselling to help him deal with post-traumatic stress, while piloting a friend’s small plane was crucial in helping him to get back in the air, crucial to his career.
But he can’t completely move on, he says, until justice has been done. The slaying of Bin Laden is something he welcomes, naturally, but he doesn’t want it to stop there.
When we first spoke, he had become increasingly frustrated with the lack of a trial and had taken it upon himself to increase the pressure on the Obama administration through every avenue available to him.
“The world is a little safe with bin Laden gone,” Clifford says.
“Everyone’s feeling a mixture of emotions, it rakes up the sadness of that day again. But we can’t stop pushing for a military trial. All the evidence is ready.”
But he is frustrated by the potential delays moving a trial from Guantanamo to the mainland:
“If it comes here, to American soil, the lawyers have to be brought up to speed, which means another two years. Where will Obama be in two years? Will he be out of office or will he be there for another four years? Will he delay it throughout that term? Who knows?
“I’m generally patient. I’ve observed everything. I watched them prosecute the Times Square bomber and he’s gone like that (clicks fingers). It took nine months. All the other guys they picked up, the shoe bomber. It only took four years to put Moussaoui away.”
Clifford gave evidence at the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui in Virginia in 2006, the would-be 9/11 attacker thought to be a potential replacement for a 20th bomber who encountered visa issues.
On the advice of an FBI agent, Clifford brought his teenage daughter Monica to watch the proceedings.
“She wouldn’t ever talk about what happened that day. We talked to a couple of psychiatrists and they just told us to leave her be, that she’d talk when she was ready.
“She was 15 and she watched this trial. She listened to me give my evidence and tell my story for the first time. She heard it and everything changed. She wasn’t a kid anymore. She watched him go through his outbursts while he was sitting maybe ten feet away. And I give her a lot of credit for that.
“For her college entry, she wrote an essay about how terrorists tried to kill her father on her birthday. It woke me up to her perspective. There we are, her aunt, my sister, her cousin, my niece, all dead. My sister’s best friend. And the people who did it are spending their days in a nice climate. They’re not suffering,” he says.
MAFFEO DIED 41 days later. She had been doused by burning jet fuel while waiting for a bus. “I knew I had to get this woman out. I got her over to the lobby,” he says, reliving the memory. “She was burnt so badly. Her clothes were fused on her — her zipper had become part of her skin. She couldn’t open her eyes. She said ‘sacred heart of Jesus, don’t let me die’. I asked her was she Catholic and she said ‘yeah’ and I told her we were going to get her out of there.
“We got out onto the street and I shouted ‘c’mon, let’s go’. We saw this fireman coming towards us and I looked up and I saw fire dripping near us and I heard the swishing sounds of the people who jumped.
“This fire chief coming towards us just said, ‘for Jesus’ sake, run’. It was the last bit of effort she used in her life,” he says.
Clifford is friendly with the Maffeo family. He is also good friends with Lee Hanson who is also very active as the families continue to fight for justice. “He was on the phone with his son when he was killed. I feel very sorry for him because he’s getting old and he needs closure,” Clifford says.
It’s still bright outside when we say our goodbyes. There’s warmth in the air, spring is coming. Clifford says he is positive about life despite everything. We linger on the steps.
“I’ll never be over it but there are a lot of people trapped inside there that will never get out of it. My brother-in-law, David, he’ll never get out of there, he’ll never get over it. He’s not the David that Ruth married, he’s lonely for his wife and his daughter, he’s stuck in it every day,” he says.
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