On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, Ruth McCourt, her four year old daughter Juliana and her best friend Paige Farley-Hackel drove to Boston’s Logan International Airport. They were on their way to Southern California. They were going to see friends, they were going to spend a few days at Deepak Chopra’s Center for Well-Being where Paige would receive certification in the Debbie Ford Shadow Process and they were going to take “Miss J” to Disneyland. Because they wanted to use frequent flier miles, they wound up on different airlines. Paige was on American Airlines flight 11, Ruth and Juliana were on United flight 175. They would meet up at the airport in Los Angeles, California, and begin their mini-vacation.
That same morning Ruth’s brother Ron Clifford, who lives in New Jersey, had a meeting scheduled at the Marriott Marquis in Midtown, but it was moved to the Marriott World Trade Center at the last moment. He and Ruth were especially close, she’d even instructed him on which tie to wear for the meeting. It was a beautiful day, his daughter Monica’s 11th birthday, and this meeting was extremely important to his career future.
He arrived about 15 minutes early, and was standing in the lobby of the WTC when the first plane, American 11, hit the north tower. He wasn’t sure what had happened, but a terribly burned woman appeared in front of him and he wound up helping her. He was praying with her and trying to keep her talking (and conscious) when the second plane hit the south tower and he knew he had to get her out of there quickly. (The woman was 40-year old Jennieann Maffeo, who had been standing at a bus stop outside the twin towers. She had been doused with burning jet fuel when the first plane crashed, and had suffered third degree burns over more than 90% of her body. Forty two days after Ron Clifford led her from the WTC she died of kidney failure.) It wasn’t until after he’d gotten the lady to an ambulance and boarded the ferry to New Jersey that he learned the cause of the fires. He was glad his sister and niece had left for California the day before and hoped that they weren’t watching CNN. He didn’t want them seeing this and worrying about his safety. As he watched the first tower collapse from the ferry, he realized that by giving him something to focus on, the lady he’d helped had probably saved his life.
Ron made it home, stunned, shaken and devastated by all that he had witnessed. Later that evening he learned that Ruth and Juliana had not left the day before, and had, in fact, been on that second plane which crashed into the south tower at 9:02:54 a.m., and that Paige Farley-Hackel, a friend of the entire family, had been on the first, which crashed into the north tower at 8:46:26 a.m.
Days later, as she prepared for the funerals, Paula Scott, Ruth’s mom, kept replaying the World Trade Center crashes in her mind. She says she somehow knew at the moment she saw the second plane crash on TV that she had lost her granddaughter, her daughter and her daughter’s best friend. “I know it wasn’t physically possible, but I had a vision of all of them holding onto each other.”
Ron asked a friend of his, a NY policeman, to retrieve some ashes for Ron to send back to a brother in Ireland. When Tommy the cop gave Ron the ashes, he also gave him a piece of glass, tinted black, irregularly shaped, but smooth on the edges. It’s a piece of the World Trade Center, and now Ron carries it all the time. ”It gives me some solace to have something. Some remembrance. It’s tempered glass. You can hold it as tight as you can and it’s not going to cut you.” Ron had his piece of glass engraved. On one side it reads, ”What a sister.” On the other, ”In the life.”
“In the life,” was Ruth’s saying. In addition to her tall, elegant beauty, the redhead was blessed with a sharp, quick mind and stood firm in her convictions. She often began her proclamations with the phrase, which is an old Irish expression meaning something akin to “in this lifetime.”
Born on June 4, 1956, Ruth was the third of six children and the only daughter born to her parents in Ballintemple, County Cork, Ireland. She immigrated with her family to the United States in 1973 at the age of 17. She first lived in Pacific Palisades with her family, her step-father was a professor at UCLA.
After doing some modeling of her own, Ruth moved to Rochester, NY, where she worked for a modeling school: she was tasked with opening new branches of the school around the country. In 1982, she settled just outside of Boston in Newton, Massachusetts, and in 1985, she opened a day spa there, “Clifford Classiques” which eventually grew into full service spas and salons with its own line of products.
Paige and Ruth had met in 1989, when Paige came to Ruth’s Newton spa. The two women began chatting about this and that, and, as they realized how much they had in common, something sparked between them. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, the women considered themselves soul-sisters. Paige became a part of Ruth’s extended family, who liked to joke that if you separated the two of them the universe might be thrown dangerously out of balance.
In September 1994, Ruth married David McCourt, owner of Abco Wire and Metal Products, in a ceremony at the Vatican. She sold her business and the happy couple moved to New London, Connecticut, which was David’s hometown. Paige still lived in Newton, but the women were as close as ever and frequently traveled together or spent time at one another’s homes. When Juliana was born on May 4, 1997, Paige was named her Godmother.
In 2001, Ruth and Paige had been busy. In January, along with Paige’s mom Marjorie, they visited South Africa and Zimbabwe. In March, Paige had gone to Ruth’s St. Patrick’s Day party in Connecticut, and later that month they’d gone on a skiing trip. In August, they’d organized a birthday party for Paige’s mom in Boston. Their September trip would include several days with friends and a surprise visit to Disneyland for Juliana.
Ruth loved gardening, reading and cooking. She and Paige were meditation partners, while she and her mother were active members of the New London Gardening Club. She lived in an elegant home built on the foundation of an old casino. The property had three beaches, and she had created a meditation garden. Ruth spent quite a bit of time getting her garden just right. Her garden featured flowing water, a small bridge, sculpture and benches.
Ruth and her mom had also recreated Mr. McGregor’s Garden, a children’s vegetable and flower garden complete with a potter’s shed. Ruth’s garden served as the inspiration for the McCourt Memorial Garden, which was dedicated four years after her death.
Ruth was extremely close to her family (including those still in Ireland) and doted on her husband and daughter. Family and friends describe her as very spiritual.
About a week before the tragedy, Ruth had called her brother Ron to relate an anecdote about Juliana. She told how she’d instructed Juliana to eat her cheerios, and the little girl had replied “yes, your highness.” Through her laughter Ruth asked Ron “where is she getting this stuff?” Like her mom, Juliana was very feminine and very concerned about others, a little girl who would question strangers who seemed sad about what was bothering them.
Ruth’s family comforts themselves with their belief that when the plane crashed, Ruth was probably calm, holding her daughter tightly and softly singing in her ear.
In New London, four years after the attack, the governor officially opened the McCourt Memorial Garden, a six-acre garden inspired by the memory of Ruth and Juliana. Ruth’s mom describes it as a contemplative and beautiful spot that she hopes will inspire thoughts of peace and love. “The first time I walked through the area I felt a profound peace come over me. Amid all the turmoil, it is such a joy to be able to connect with nature. Every time I am at the Garden I am reminded of the words ‘one is nearer to heaven in the garden than anywhere else on earth.’ This is my peaceful place and our family is so grateful to all those who have made this Garden possible. I hope that everyone who visits this Garden will share in the joy that it has brought to so many.”
The garden features several inviting areas including a Children’s Secret Garden, where visitors will find whimsical mushroom-shaped tables and stools and a “Fairy Circle” perfect for storytelling, birthday parties or picnic lunches for the many school children who visit the Museum. A brick “tea terrace” on the side of the historic Deshon-Allyn House has been named after Ruth McCourt in celebration of her Irish heritage.
I used more links — and even a couple of print magazines I’d bought back in 2001 — than you’d imagine. As usual, Google was invaluable. Rather than list all of the links, here are a few that you might find interesting.
The 2996 Project
McCourt Memorial Garden
Juliana McCourt Children’s Education Fund – New Londond Police Union
Juliana Valentine McCourt Children’s Education Fund Home
One of Ron Clifford’s Accounts of 9/11 (He has given multiple interviews, this is one of the two that I found most helpful.)
Another of Ron Clifford’s Accounts (The second of the two I found most helpful.)
United In Memory
United in Memory Quilt Gallery
My original 2996 post