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Ruth McCourt photographed with her daughter Juliana

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

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Ruth McCourt photographed with her daughter Juliana

The two planes began climbing to their scheduled altitude of 36,000 feet. At 8:37 a.m. the first sign that something was amiss came when the United flight received an unusual request from the tower asking if they could see the American flight.

“Affirmative, we have him, he looks about twenty-nine, twenty-eight thousand feet,” responded Captain Saracini.  At 8:41, the United pilot, obviously now concerned about the American Airlines plane reported, “We heard a suspicious transmission on our departure from BOS,” using the airport’s three letter code. “Sounds like someone keyed the mike and said ‘everyone remain in your seats.’”

Air traffic control began to scramble. Over Albany, New York the American Airlines flight took a sharp left and headed due south towards New York City, well off its flight path. Then came a chilling transmission from flight attendant Amy Sweeney. She told a flight services manager at American that five hijackers were on board. She described them as being of Middle Eastern descent and stated they had stabbed two of the fight attendants. “A hijacker cut the throat of a business-class passenger,” she said “and he appears to be dead. They have just gained access to the cockpit.”

At 8:43 United Flight 175 also veered from its flight path over northern New Jersey. It continued south for a brief period before making a U-turn towards New York City.  The nightmare had begun.

Soon after he awoke, Ruth McCourt’s brother Ron Clifford, 47, heard the sound of his phone ringing in his Glen Ridge, New Jersey home. It was his breakfast appointment, asking him if they could switch from the Marriott on Times Square to the one at the World Trade Center. He looked at his watch; it was 6:30 and the World Trade Center was actually closer than the midtown destination. Quickly he agreed.This was a very important appointment. Ron’s software company, Tradewind Net Access, specializing in E Learning, was about to close a major deal over breakfast, he hoped. As his sister Ruth had suggested, he dressed in his dark blue suit, white shirt and yellow silk tie. Ruth had told him to be sure to wear a matching hanky in the breast pocket. “You have to stand out,” she’d said.
It was a beautiful sunny day and it was his daughter Monica’s birthday. Coincidentally, she would be 11 on September 11th. He planned to come home early to help her celebrate.

He gazed out at the azure sky, a perfect autumn day, and he decided to take the train across from New Jersey, then the ferry from Holboken to Lower Manhattan, rather than drive. That would give him time to walk around the World Trade Center. As an architect, he was endlessly fascinated with the building’s extraordinary structure, and when out-of-towners visited, his guided tour of Manhattan usually ended at the Twin Towers. In fact, the week before, when preparing to sail off Manhattan a minor problem with the shaft of his boat had put him in contact through a friend with an engineer named Bob Devillas . Bob fixed the shaft and they chatted about his previous job. He had just retired as the Chief Engineer at the World Trade Center in charge of ventilation and heating. He had been present when the 1993 bombing carried out by Arab militants had taken place. He, in fact, was the first person into the basement after that bomb which killed six people.

Ron called a neighbor close to the station to find out the train timetable. The New Jersey PATH train would leave at 7:30 sharp. He would make it easily. When he reached the Holboken ferry off the train he marveled again at the beauty of the day. During the short hop across the Hudson to the pier he found himself praying that his meeting would go well. He and his Indonesian partner were on the verge of greatly expanding their software company, Today’s breakfast meeting would be a vital step forward.
Because he used to work in the vicinity of the World Trade Center Ron knew the area well. He got off the ferry and walked the few blocks to the hotel. It had formerly been known as the Vista and he knew there had been major renovations since the change in ownership – the architect in him wanted to see the connecting lobby to the World Trade Center. It was 8:30 and he had 30 minutes to fill before the breakfast.

Inside he walked down the marble hallway of the Marriott and into the World Trade Center lobby, a place of soaring ceilings, dramatic light and incredible hustle and buzz. He always found it stark and very dramatic. He lingered, then was heading back through the connecting revolving door when a massive explosion rocked the building. It was 8:46 a.m.

American Flight 11, traveling at 494 miles per hour with hijacker Mohammed Atta at the controls, had hit the North Tower between the 94th and 99th floor, imploding on impact, its 24,000 gallons of jet fuel creating a mighty fireball.  On board was Paige Hackel, his sister’s best friend, and the woman he spent every New Year’s with.  “I remember that I smelt paraffin right away. I didn’t equate it with aviation fuel and I immediately thought that it must have been a tank rupture in the basement,” he says, Suddenly the building began to shake and secondary explosions could be heard. All around him people began screaming and running. He made towards the connecting doors with the Marriott Hotel.

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