He remembered also that New Jersey Transit had recently announced that in the event of an emergency, trains would line up at the arrival point on the Jersey shore of the Manhattan ferries to bring people to safety. He walked to the nearby South Ferry landing and waited to board. All that was on his mind now was that he had to get home to his family.
Hundreds were waiting along with him. Women and men were on their knees praying. The sound of police and fire sirens filled the air. He was afraid they would lockdown the area before he could get out.
Luckily he managed to get on board a ferry and remembers standing with a woman from Northern Ireland when they saw the South Tower collapse in a massive plume of smoke. “This can’t be happening,” he told himself over and over.
He jumped on the first train and a man with a Blackberry pager told everyone that Washington too was under attack. He thought the world might very well end that day.
The train dropped him one station from his house. Finally he made it home, bedraggled, exhausted, the burnt skin of Jennieann on his shirt and suit, his tie covered in aviation fuel. He desperately wanted to take a shower to clean up.
Just as he stepped into the bathroom, Ruth’s husband, David, called with undisguised concern in his voice. He thought, but he wasn’t sure, that Ruth might have been on one of the flights. Ron remembers a sinking feeling and thinking, “Oh shit, this just couldn’t be.”
For the next several hours he worked the Internet, calling up the United and America web sites. He found out from Paige Hackel’s husband Alan that he had been with them the night before and that a driver had picked them up that morning to drop them at their separate terminals. “I had dinner with two of the most beautiful and vivacious women in the world last night and now they’re gone,” he told Ron tearfully.
Ron still had not given up hope, but as the hours passed and he began to fully put the pieces together he knew it didn’t look good. “We’re in trouble,” he told Ruth’s husband. “Jesus Christ, this can’t be happening.”
Finally confirmation of the passenger list came from the airlines. Ruth, Juliana and Paige were all gone. “I was numb, totally numb,” said Ron when it was finally confirmed. “My brothers in Cork had been so relived that I escaped, none of us originally thought that Ruth was involved. Then it all came out.”
He often thinks of those last moments of his sister and niece, wondering what they went through. “I think Ruth probably exemplified calmness – she would have talked to Juliana, read to her, they might even have sung a song together. She was no panicker; she was trying to control whatever she could, telling her daughter everything was fine. It wouldn’t surprise me if she had a calming impact on her fellow passengers around her too."
After September 11 Ron says he functioned on false energy for weeks, communicating news to his family (Ruth’s body was not found until January, Juliana’s has not been found) and a memorial service in Connecticut at the beach house that Juliana, Ruth and David had called home. Over 1200 showed up at the church. Seven hundred people attended the reception and the last song was “Galway Bay,” one of Ruth’s favorites.
A few days after the memorial, Ron Clifford stood at the bedside of Jeannieann Maffeo, the woman he had helped on the morning of September 11. Maffeo, a 38-year-old computer analyst with Paine Webber, lived in Brooklyn with her sister Andrea and her elderly parents from Italy.
Now she was in the burns unit at Cornell Hospital on Manhattan’s East Side, one of the best in the world, but the nature of her horrific injuries meant it was long odds that Jeannieann,now unconscious could survive.
With him Ron Clifford brought his yellow silk tie, the one his sister Juliana had recommended he wear for his important breakfast. It was now stained with aviation fuel and he placed it gently beside Jennieann’s bed as a token of the experience they had had together. Then he lowered his head and prayed for the young woman who had so randomly come into his life under tragic circumstances on the morning of September 11. He pleaded with her to make it, to defy the odds, to make some good happen out of a horrible experience.
Her parents and sister, he found out, had been desperately looking for her after the Trade Center buildings came down, and her boss had eventually called them after he got the information Ron had written down. Jennieann had asked Ron not to call her mother because she was frail and elderly; now the family was carrying on a vigil 24 hours a day beside her bed.
Her father embraced him like a son and kissed him profusely, thanking him in heavily accented English for giving him his daughter back, no matter how briefly.
Forty days after she had been terribly burned, Jennieann gave up her fight for life. Ron had just dropped off his brothers, who had come over to see Ground Zero, to the airport. On the Van Wyck Expressway on the way back home from Kennedy Airport, the news of her death came over the car radio. Ron pulled over and cried his eyes out. He later received a personal letter from President George W. Bush sympathizing with his loss and commending him on his bravery in trying to save Jennieann.