Continental Divides

‘May the Wind be Always at Your Back’

Mourners will file into a New Jersey Catholic church to bid Godspeed to Ron Clifford, who died suddenly at the age of 69

By John McCaslin

On Saturday, January 20th, mourners will file into a New Jersey Catholic church to bid Godspeed to Ron Clifford, who died suddenly at the age of 69 while he and his wife, Brigid, traveled west through New Mexico.

“A known charmer with a brilliant wit and a bit of the Blarney, Ron’s Irish roots seem inseparable from his undeniable charisma,” the Corkman’s obituary reads. “Ron was at once an American hero and a proud Irishman, who embodied the best qualities of both countries.”

It was one of my closest friends, David Hudgins, who first introduced me to his “cousin Ron.” The Irishman-turned-American exuded every bit the Celtic charm I’d heard and read about, despite the pain and burden he still carried from an uncanny string of tragedies that unfolded during a single day of his life.

A work meeting had taken Ron to the North Tower of the World Trade Center on the calamitous morning of 9/11. And rather than evacuating after the first hijacked plane ripped into the skyscraper he would help rescue a badly burned woman and lead her to an ambulance, getting struck by falling debris in the process.

Ron was deeply committed to helping other people, his obituary observes, whether it be pulling off to the side of a highway to help a stranger change a flat tire or fixing a leak in a neighbor’s sink.

Shaken from his traumatic experience at Ground Zero, Ron had barely made it home to his family when he was blindsided all over again, the news this time even more unthinkable: His 45-year-old sister, Ruth Clifford McCourt, and 4-year-old niece, Juliana, were passengers on the second plane that slammed into the South Tower.

The mother and daughter had boarded their doomed flight in Boston, bound for a surprise visit to Disneyland in California. To this day I cannot fathom the emotions, the grief that Ron surely felt.

The cruel coincidences, though, didn’t end there.

Ron also would learn that Paige Farley-Hackel, his sister’s best friend and Juliana’s godmother, had been a passenger on the first plane that struck the North Tower he’d earlier escaped.

The trio, it turned out, had originally planned to fly together to Los Angeles aboard United Airlines Flight 175, until Paige realized she could instead redeem frequent flyer miles on American Airlines Flight 11. So they went their separate ways at the Boston airport, agreeing to meet again upon landing in LA.

Obviously, neither plane reached its destination.

On the 20th anniversary of September 11th, Ron told a reporter for the Irish Echo newspaper that it remained difficult for him to even think about the unprecedented terrorist attacks that killed 2,977 innocent people and left many times that number grieving.

“You wish that Ruth and Juliana were still here,” he said. “David [Ruth’s husband, who died in 2013] is gone now, too, and that family is now all gone.” (The McCourts are buried together at St. Finbarr’s Cemetery in Cork City, Ireland).

To honor their memory, Ron campaigned tirelessly to bring the remaining 9/11 perpetrators to justice. He became a government witness, providing testimony in the criminal trials of those terrorist leaders who were believed to have orchestrated the attacks.

An avid sailor, Ron now unfortunately won’t be able to climb aboard his meticulously restored 26-foot sailboat and fulfill his dream of completing a transatlantic crossing from New London, Connecticut to his native Cork.

That said, and to his great amusement I’m told, he and his sailboat did get their 15 minutes of fame this past summer after somebody posted a wildly popular YouTube video of the seemingly undaunted skipper plowing his vessel headfirst through the craziest of currents in a narrow ocean channel.

The video’s caption reads: “Legend has it that he’s still trying to get through the canal to this day.”

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author. He lives in Bigfork.

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