Ron Clifford escaped World Trade Center, as sister and niece killed in plane


Read more: Bin Laden death brings justice to still grieving Irish families -- Closure for those who lost loved ones on 9/11

This is an extract from my book "Fire in the Morning" about the events on that dreadful day and the Irish who were heroes, survivors and victims of 9/11

United Flight 175, a Boeing 767 non-stop from Boston’s Logan Airport to Los Angeles with seven flight attendants and 56 passengers on board, rolled back from Gate 19 shortly after 7:45 a.m. on  September 11 The captain was Victor J. Saracini, 51, a native of Pennsylvania. The first officer was Glen Horrocks, 38, also of Pennsylvania.

Ruth Clifford McCourt, 45, and her four-year-old daughter, Juliana, were among the passengers. A native of Ireland, Ruth was an extremely successful businesswoman who had created a Boston beauty spa that drew customers from all over Europe and the U.S. She was also strikingly beautiful. Tall, blond and elegant, Ruth was perfectly dressed for every occasion. Juliana was a duplicate of her mother, with angelic good looks and a mischievous smile. At a wedding just the week before, Juliana had played with the other children. Afterwards one of the mothers told Ruth that her daughter had said she’d been “playing with an angel,” meaning Juliana.

Despite her business success, after the birth of her daughter in 1997, Ruth became a full-time mother, devoted to the blond little girl who was the center of her and her husband David’s life. She had recently returned from trips to Portugal with Julianna and was excited because the little girl had learned to ride her pony on her own.

Originally from Cork, where her father, a paper merchant, was a leading figure in business, Ruth, the only girl of five children, left for America with her mother at age 16, when her parents separated.
After college she began working for Barbizon, an institute  of learning about cosmetics  that has outlets all over the United States, her territory was in the South in the Birmingham, Alabama area.

She became a skin care specialist, training kin one of London’s top schools. When she returned to the U.S. in 1986, she opened her own spa, Clifford Classique, in  the Newtown area, a suburb  of Boston. It was an immediate success.

In 1995 she met David McCourt, twelve years her senior, from a wealthy Connecticut family which traced its roots back to Waterford. McCourt had inherited his father’s gas distribution business and he and his brother had expanded it greatly. They met through tennis-playing friends. It was love at first sight and within six months they were making plans to get hitched.

The wedding at the Vatican was a bittersweet affair, however. Five days before the ceremony Valentine, Ruth’s beloved father, had passed away. He had just finished writing his speech for her wedding. The family decided to go ahead with the wedding anyway.

In typical fashion, Ruth had wangled an audience with the Pope for her and her new husband. She had promised an influential priest in her district that she would set up a meeting with Kate Hepburn, a family friend, if he returned the favor with the Pope. “Done.” he’d said.

Now she was flying to a Deepak Chopra seminar on the West Coast. She was a devotee of the New Age guru as was Paige Hackel, 46, her close friend who was traveling on American Airlines Flight 11, leaving at about the same time to go to Los Angeles. They had not traveled together because they had different frequent flyer programs.

The friends had spent the night before at Paige’s house, planning their trip, which would end with a visit to Disneyworld in Anaheim, California for Julianna.

In the car on the way to the airport Juliana’s orange juice had spilled out of its container in Ruth’s handbag. The driver remembers that Ruth took it all in stride, her well-known ability to remain calm during crises great and small showing itself. The driver remembers an excited trio, laughing and chatting as they prepared for their long trip.

Also on board the United flight that Ruth and Juliana were on was Marwan Al-Shehi, a citizen of the United Arab Emirates who had recently attended flight school in Florida, and five other men from the Middle East, Fayez Ahmed Hassan, Ali Banihammad,  Mohand Alsehri, Ahmed Alghamadi and Mamza Alghamadi.

All the men were dressed in khakis and tan tennis shirts, not unusual for a flight that would terminate in sunny California. Surprisingly, none of the men had any carry-on baggage.

American Airlines Flight 11, with Paige Hackel on board, had departed at 8:04, ten minutes before the United flight. On board were Mohammad Atta, an Egyptian with flying experience, and four other Middle Eastern men who all sat in first class.