In this September 11th themed episode of Take to the Sky: the Air Disaster Podcast, we share an incredible story of coincidence and tragic loss. Two best friends, Ruth Clifford McCourt and Paige Farley Hackel, made plans to surprise Ruth’s 4-year-old Juliana with a trip to Disneyland in California. On September 11, 2001, Ruth and Juliana boarded United Flight 175 while Paige boarded American Airlines Flight 11. Ultimately, both planes, carrying the trio on two separate flights, crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City, NY, killing everyone onboard. Ruth and Paige’s story remains one of the most unbelievable convergence of tragic events to happen on 9/11.
When is something that happens more than coincidence? Is it still random if the events seem almost pre-destined, like the universe was suddenly following a script that wind paths toward an inevitable yet unlikely end? The story we will explore today can be thought of as equal parts tragic and freakish. If it was a random happening of events, it may be one of the most random things to ever have happened. Many times, when we tell these stories, we ask the question, what are the odds? And after hearing today’s story, you will probably agree that the odds of this same set of events happening again must be astronomically unlikely.
Two Best Friends Plan a Trip to California in September 2001
In September 2001, best friends Ruth Clifford McCourt and Paige Farley Hackel were planning a trip to California. Ruth wanted to surprise her 4-year-old daughter, Juliana, with a trip to Disneyland. And there was no one better to help her plan this surprise than Ruth’s best friend Paige. The two women had been best friends for years and shared many meaningful events together throughout their decade plus of friendship. Ruth and Paige referred to one another as “soul sisters” as if they were cosmically bound together. In fact, Paige was Juliana’s godmother.
Over the last ten years of their lives, they had supported one another like any close-knit best friends would do. They meditated together. They celebrated the key events in one another’s lives. And they travelled together, having gone to Africa and to meditation retreats.
And they were very excited for this upcoming trip to California in 2001. In addition to Disneyland, the pair planned to visit with friends and to stay for a few days at the Center for Well Being in La Jolla, which was founded by renowned guru and author, Deepak Chopra. While most details of their trip were coming together nicely, there was one snag they had to contend with: they could not find any seats together on the same plane. So, they did what anyone would do in their situation: they booked separate flights leaving the same airport at Boston Logan International and heading for the same destination to Los Angeles International Airport (or LAX). Once they landed, they planned to reconnect at the airport and launch into their vacation from there.
And such a pair of flights existed. Ruth had originally booked a seat for herself and little Juliana on a Delta flight, but that was unexpectedly shifted to United Airlines 175 while Paige selected a seat on American Airlines Flight 11.
Ruth Clifford McCourt and Paige Farley Hackel Crossed Paths After Living Very Different Lives
So, let’s talk about these women and how their paths crossed. Eleven years before, Paige walked into a spa in Boston called Clifford Classiques and struck up an interesting conversation with the spa’s owner, Ruth. The two quickly found they shared many of the same passions: wellness, meditation, and healing. According to friends and family, it was instant best friend chemistry.
While the women had many current passions in common, they had up to that point, travelled on very different life paths. Ruth had come to America from her native Ireland when she was only 17. She first pursued modeling while living in L.A., and then moved to upstate New York where she worked for a modeling school and helped them expand their footprint into multiple locations. Ruth eventually made her way to Boston and opened her spa.
Paige had a less straightforward path. Born and raised in the suburbs of Boston, she had struggled with addiction in her twenties. She successfully completed treatment in 1985 and, by the time she met Ruth, she was volunteering with Salvation Army treatment programs and working toward a master’s degree in substance abuse counseling. Paige also sought out spiritual counsel from self-help gurus, notably author Wayne Dyer as well as a colleague of Deepak Chopra’s named Debbie Ford, with whom Paige had studied.
Once Paige and Ruth had become friends, Paige had introduced Ruth to meditation and to the various gurus that had inspired her so much. Meditation and healing was so integral to Paige’s life that she was even a member of an “integrative coaching” group that met over the phone every Tuesday. Paige was so inspired by her studies with Debbie Ford that by 2001, she had plans to start an AM radio show to be called “Spiritually Speaking.”
Ruth Clifford McCourt and Paige Farley Hackel Build a Life Based on Friendship, Passion, and Inclusion
The two women remained friends even as their own families and relationships grew. Ruth married David McCourt in 1992 in a ceremony held at the Vatican. A few years later, their daughter Juliana was born, and from there, the family decided to move to New London, Connecticut in 1999, which was also David’s hometown. Paige met and married Allan Hackel and they settled into a home in Newton, Massachusetts, not far from Ruth’s home. Paige was also mother to a son and daughter and stepmother to Allan’s children from a previous marriage.
To remain close, the friends frequently scheduled outings. Paige would come to Connecticut for the McCourts’ St. Patrick’s Day parties, or Ruth would travel north to join Paige on trips to Loon Mountain in New Hampshire.
By the time the new year 2001 came, both women had become an essential part of one another’s lives and had even shared a trip to Zimbabwe, including Paige’s mother. In March, they went skiing. In August, Ruth helped her friend organize a birthday party for Paige’s mother in Boston.
So it was no surprise that as 2001 rolled along, the friends would make even more plans, this time for their trip to California.
Ruth and little Juliana stayed in a Boston hotel the night of the 10th to ensue they could wake up in time to make their early coast-to-coast flight. And as the sun rose on the morning of September 11th, it lit up the pristine, clear blue sky as the women made their way to Logan International Airport.
And as we all know, they were not the only ones with plans for that day.
Ruth McCourt’s Brother, Ronald Clifford, Was at the Towers When His Sister’s Plane Hit
At 7:59 AM, American Airlines Flight 11 takes off for L.A., with Paige onboard and just about 15 minutes later, United Flight 175 lifts off with Ruth and Juliana onboard.
Just 20 minutes later, the first signs of trouble emerge when American 11 flight attendant Betty Ong phones American Airlines ground personnel and tells them she thinks the plane has been hijacked.
On the ground in New York City, in an unbelievable sequence of events and perhaps fate, Ron Clifford, Ruth’s brother, has just arrived at the North Tower for a business meeting. He is 15 minutes early, so he paces the busy lobby to pass time.
Back in the air, at 8:46 AM, terrorists plow American Flight 11 into the North Tower, killing all 76 passengers and 11 crew, including, Paige Farley Hackel. When the plane hits the tower, Ron has no idea that his sister’s best friend’s plane is the source of the massive shudder that reverberates through the building.
Ron tells the story as follows: “I just happened to be at a meeting at the tower that morning. I remember a major shudder. Then there was this vapor everywhere and this woman came walking out of the fog. She was very badly burned. I sat her down and I went to the bathroom and got a plastic bag full of water and doused her. She was in very bad shape.”
Ron went on to explain that the woman had simply been waiting for the bus when the first plane hit the North Tower. When it struck, fire fanned down and out, singing the woman and her clothing. Her hands were swollen, and her clothes were welded to her body. She had a zip on her sweater, and Ron saw that it was molded on to her skin. Her sneakers were virtually gone.
Back in the air, and just minutes after American 11 was intentionally crashed into the North Tower, at 8:52 a.m., a United flight attendant, likely Robert John Fangman, reaches a United Airlines operator in San Francisco, California, and reports a hijacking on United 175. This is the plane with Ruth and Juliana onboard.
Ruth’s brother Ron was helping the injured woman when he looked up in the sky just as a second plane, United 175, crashes into the South Tower. Unbeknownst to him, it is the plane carrying his sister and his niece. The time was 9:03 AM, and the blast instantly kills all 51 passengers and 9 crew onboard, including Ruth and Juliana, as well as many people inside the tower offices.
Ron recalls at that moment, “It sent a harmonic shudder through the building and the floor lifted – an almighty shake.”
At this point, as we all now know about that day, people were beginning to understand the broader truth of the moment: commercial planes had been hijacked and intentionally flown into the buildings. Ron remembers the chaos that began to unfold around him as people were shouting that a plane had hit. He, along with hundreds of others, fled the towers on foot, making their way through the near empty city streets. But Ron never forgot one moment as he was walking. Firemen were coming in the opposite direction, towards the towers, yelling at the stunned crowd, “Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ’s sake run!”
As Ron did begin to run, he looked back and could see people jumping out of the towers, trying to escape an even more horrendous death inside the blazing inferno. He recalls, “It was just unbelievable. There were people holding hands. There was another woman holding her purse. There were guys sky-diving off. I believe the temperatures were so hot inside they had to bear the temperatures or just jump.”
Ron was one of the very last people to make the ferry. It wasn’t until he made it home hours later, covered in smoke and dust and smelling of jet fuel, that he realized Ruth and Juliana might have been on board the hijacked United Airlines flight 175.
A couple of hours later the terrible news was confirmed – Ruth and Juliana had been on the plane that was flown into the second tower. It wasn’t until Tuesday night that the families pieced together the full details of the tragedy. Family and friends said they took small comfort--but comfort nonetheless--in the fact that the two friends had perished together.
Not only did he lose his beloved sister and niece, and suffer burns himself, but the woman Ron Clifford helped reach a hospital on September 11th eventually died of her injuries 40 days later.
Ron, who was born in Ireland like Ruth and has lived in the US for 30 years, says of that day: “It’s amazing how I can be there and all these things happened. I will never understand it. My sister who we absolutely loved... to be in there when all this was happening. It’s just unreal.”
After September 11th, Ron was plagued by awful memories – the horror of seeing people plunging to their deaths as they leapt from the inferno on the upper floors. Of those moments he said, “It was an incredible nightmare. I went into therapy immediately because I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t close my eyes.”
Friends and Family Remember Ruth Clifford McCourt and Paige Farley Hackel
As the news of their unbelievable deaths trickled through family and friends, loved ones made their way to Ruth and David’s house, gathering quietly on the back deck overlooking flowering rock gardens that dip into the mouth of the Thames River.
While there, one friend could not help but think of how the deck and this beautiful scene was exactly like the person Ruth had been in life. He said, “She was open and beautiful and inclusive.''
Alice Fitzpatrick, a close friend of Ruth's mother, said everyone benefited from Ruth's hospitality, saying that Ruth made an effort to reach out to people and loved to include people in whatever events were happening.
As for little Juliana, she was remembered by friends as a delightful, happy little girl. But the loss of a child was even harder for many to grasp. As one friend said of Juliana’s passing, “This is a tremendous loss. We are just flooded with a sense of loss.''
After 9/11, the McCourts and Hackels Struggle with Immense Loss
Ron Clifford, Ruth’s brother and who witnessed her plane crashing into the South Tower, explained that he has never been able to bring himself to go to the place where the Twin Towers once stood, saying, “It’s too painful to ever go there, and while I respect the efforts and ideals behind the memorial and museum, I will not be attending the opening.”
In January 2002, Ruth’s husband David McCourt said he had considered suicide. Ruth and Juliana were his life and passion. But losing them made him feel like he was going to end his life. He could not understand why they were taken and why there were taken in such a violent, hateful way. For a few years following 9/11, David would get testy during interviews when people would ask him about Islam, the religion that was used by the terrorists to justify their murderous acts.
David had a choice: shut himself off from the world after the loss of Ruth and Juliana or he could educate himself about bigoted hatred and the trap of stereotypes. David chose to become educated, and to him, by educating not only himself but others, he would be countering the emotions which lead to the terrorist attacks.
This mission is ultimately what kept him going.
In a speech he gave at Temple Emanu-El in Waterford, Connecticut, David shared his plan to fight the very hatred which led to 9/11: “It’s been a journey of spiritual awakening to go from where I was... If you don’t have the spiritual awakening, you don’t survive... What we have to do is to start with the children in this country and teach them tolerance, compassion and understanding.”
To advance his mission, David helped found B.R.A.V.E. Juliana, a program of HELP USA, to teach nonviolence and conflict resolution to children. He said his wife and daughter died because some countries teach their children to hate. David felt that we (the US) need to “start with the children in this country and teach them tolerance, compassion and understanding.”
David McCourt later retired to Florida and married again in 2011, this time to Mary Bryant McCourt. Sadly, David died in 2013 of metastatic melanoma.
Within just one year of the 9/11 tragedy, Paige's family was making sure her life's work continues. They established the Paige Farley Hackel Free Care Fund, which provides no cost treatment to women and children struggling with addiction, AIDS, or psychiatric problems. As Paige’s son said, "She made that the foundation of her life. Giving back was a big thing." And from her daughter, Jodi Hackel Miller, "That was her whole reason for living. To give back what other people gave to her…. Kindness, tolerance… She wouldn't want it any other way."
Ten years after she was killed on board American Airlines Flight 11, Paige’s life was celebrated in another way. Family, friends and Salvation Army members from where she used to volunteer gathered at the Paige Farley-Hackey Memorial Playground remember and recognize the impact Paige had on lives throughout Greater Boston.
Her husband Allan said at the ceremony, "The only way we will triumph over terrorism and conquer the senseless tragedy of that horrible day is by celebrating the kindness of the human spirit. Paige did that every day of her life."
Ruth and Juliana McCourt and Paige Farley Hackel Memorialized
A garden on the grounds of New London's Lyman Allyn Art Museum was established to honor the memories of Juliana and Ruth McCourt. In New London, the Juliana McCourt Children’s Educational Fund has been established to help foreign students come to the United States and study subjects related to healing and tolerance. In addition to the programs already mentioned, in California, a Paige Farley Scholarship will allow people to attend guru Debbie Ford’s training program tuition-free.
To close out our story this episode, I wanted to end with a quote from Ruth’s mother, Paula Scott. As she prepared for the two funerals of the inseparable best friends and her granddaughter, Paula kept replaying the World Trade Center crashes in her mind. She remains adamant to this day that she somehow knew the very moment she saw the second plane crash on TV that she had lost her granddaughter, her daughter and her daughter’s best friend. She says, “I know it wasn’t physically possible. But I had a vision of all of them holding onto each other.”
And THAT is the heartbreaking and unbelievable story of Ruth Clifford McCourt, Juliana Valentine McCourt, and Paige Farley Hackel, who despite being doomed on 9/11, are forever remembered for their love and devotion to family, friends, and their respective life passions.