In-depth: ‘When the second tower went down, I felt a current go through me... I knew he was gone’

By Catherine Fegan

Every so often, Catherine Coughlan goes down to the basement and presses play on the old answering machine.

She listens to the message, some 20 years old now, as the much-missed voice of her husband, Martin, talks of a day too difficult for her to speak of herself.

“Hello, Catherine and kids... there’s been a huge explosion. We will see if we have a chance of getting out. Hopefully we will see you tonight.”

Although Catherine (70) knows the words off by heart, she plays the message once, maybe twice, more.

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“I could be down there hoovering or something and I will do it. Martin’s pictures are up on the wall and it just makes me feel close to him. I mightn’t play it again for months, but listening to it brings me comfort.”

Irishman Martin Coughlan, who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York

Twenty years ago today, on September 11, 2001, Martin Coughlan (53), a carpenter and father-of-four from Cappawhite in Co Tipperary, was working in the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York when terror struck. It was 8.45am New York time (1.45pm in Ireland) when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the WTC, immediately killing hundreds of people and trapping hundreds more in the 110-storey skyscraper.

Just 18 minutes later, as TV screens across the world showed live pictures of the burning tower, a second aircraft, United Airlines Flight 175, crashed into the South Tower.

The first tower collapsed at 10.28am, but the second tower, where Martin was refurbishing offices on the 92nd floor, collapsed first at 9.59am.

“When the second tower went down, I felt a current go right through me,” recalls Catherine.

“I was at work and turned to someone and I said, ‘He’s gone.’ I just knew straight away he was gone.”

***

It’s a warm summer’s day in north Dublin as Catherine and three of her four daughters, Ailish, Sinead and Denise, reunite with her late husband’s brother Jimmy. Apart from Sinead, who moved to Ireland in 2005, the sisters and their mother still live in the US and are currently on holiday in Ireland. Orla, the eldest of the Coughlan girls, didn’t make the trip on this occasion and has joined the group via videolink from New York.

Sinead, Ailish and Denise Coughlan, daughters of Martin Coughlan, who died during the World Trade Center attacks in New York in 2001. Photograph: Mark Condren

“Ailish, you got your Irish accent back,” quips Uncle Jimmy, a Tipperary man now living in Dublin.

The Coughlan grandchildren are playing nearby, running around the garden and vying for adult attention. Tea and coffee are poured, and talk soon turns to Martin, the reason they have all gathered together.

“I was working that day... it was a Tuesday,” recalls Jimmy, one of Martin’s six siblings.

“My wife was upstairs ironing and she had Sky News on. She called me up and as I was watching what was happening, it took a while for it to sink in. That evening we couldn’t get through to New York at all. Then Catherine rang that night, maybe 10pm our time, and said that Martin was working in the South Tower and she hadn’t heard from him.”

Earlier that day, while the house was empty, Martin had managed to call home from his job site on the 92nd floor of Tower Two.

He rang the house landline twice, leaving two messages on the answering machine.

“We transferred them both on to CDs so we still have them,” says Ailish.

One message, the one Catherine sometimes plays from the old phone, is still on the answering machine.

The weekend before 9/11, as she always did, Catherine had asked her husband where he would be working in the coming days. His job as a carpenter often took him all over the city.

“He said he was working in the World Trade Center,” says Catherine. “So I knew straight away [that he was caught up in the terror attack].”

Martin worked for Sweeney & Harkin Carpentry & Drywall Corporation of Long Island City. Like so many Irish who left recession-hit Ireland in the 1980s, Martin and Catherine had moved their young family to the US in search of new opportunities. It also helped, adds Sinead, that her dad had a love for American music, in particular Elvis Presley.

“He loved his music,” she says. “He liked a good party, singing, dancing, music. He liked to be a part of that show. He had a guitar and he liked to play that. He didn’t really know how to play but he liked to get into the whole role. He was funny — he had a good sense of humour.”

Martin had learned his carpenter’s trade in London, where he met Catherine at a dance in Fulham. The couple had four girls together, all born in Ireland, before they relocated to the US.

Orla, now a teacher, was 13 at the time. “One of my favourite memories of my dad is actually from around the time we moved to the US,” she says.

“I didn’t want to be in the States. I had a rough day home with Mum all day and I was threatening to run away and live on the streets of Manhattan. When my dad came home from work, he tried to talk to me, but I ran out the front door, down the block, and I was heading towards the expressway. He came running after me and he faked a heart attack so I would stop running.

“All of a sudden, I thought he was having a heart attack and might die so I turned around and I came back, and then he stopped and started talking to me. We went back to the house and into my bedroom and had a heart-to-heart conversation, and he told me how he felt about moving to America, how scared he was. He told me about the day I was born and how important that was to him and then how scary it was to move a family of four children over to Manhattan. How we were going to get through this. I really felt it was a turning point in our relationship and me settling here.”

Martin Coughlan and his wife, Catherine, with their four daughters, Sinead, Denise, Ailish and Orla

On the day of the terror attack, two of the Coughlan girls, Sinead and Denise, were thousands of miles away in Arizona, where they were both attending college.

“It was really hard because we were really far away,” recalls Sinead.

“The flights were closed down and we were on the other side of the country. They opened flights a couple of days later so we managed to get a flight from Phoenix to NYC. Ailish and a friend had to drive to Buffalo to collect us.”

Reunited at the family home in Bayside, Queens, the women — now joined by Jimmy, who had flown over from Ireland — waited for news.

“We waited two weeks on the couch,” says Catherine. “None of us were able to move. Then, when the detectives came... I’ll never forget it. Bill [Orla’s husband] walked in the door, and the look on his face... That was it — again, I knew straight away. The detectives came in and said yes, that they had found Martin’s remains.”

The family count themselves among the more fortunate, says Sinead, referring to the fact that they had confirmation that their father had died within the first week. Others waited for months, even years. Martin’s funeral was held in Long Island, two weeks after 9/11.

“We had a second burial two years later when further remains were recovered,” adds Catherine.

Amid the sheer scale of the numbers that died — almost 3,000 — sometimes the individual stories get lost. Overall, an estimated 1,000 victims who died in the 9/11 attacks had Irish-American links, but just six were born in Ireland. Among the Irish victims were Galway woman Ann Marie McHugh, who was working on the 84th floor of the same tower were Coughlan perished. Also killed were Dubliners Patrick Currivan and Joanne Cregan, Sligo man Kieran Gorman and Cork native Ruth McCourt — who died on United Airlines Flight 175 alongside her four-year-old daughter, Juliana.

“Twenty years on, I do think it’s important that the stories of the Irish civilians who lost their lives are told,” says Catherine.

“It’s difficult, it’s still raw, but this impacted so many lives, even in Ireland.”

***

Ron Clifford, from Cork, was on his way to a business meeting in the Marriott Hotel at the World Trade Center when the first plane hit the North Tower. Onboard was Paige Hackel, his sister’s best friend, and the woman he spent every New Year’s with. He was in the South Tower lobby of the hotel when a woman, blazing from the spill of jet fuel, came running towards him. As Ron helped Jennieann Maffeo, the second plane hit the South Tower high above them.

Ron Clifford, whose sister, Ruth McCourt, and her daughter, Juliana, died on 9/11

“My memories of that day are very vivid,” he recalls, speaking from his home in Glen Ridge, New Jersey.

“I remember trying to shuffle through the lobby with her [Jennieann]. God love her, her clothes were burnt off her and I was able to shout to one of the waiters in the lobby to get a tablecloth to put around her. I think in my Irishness, understanding that she was badly hurt, I started to say the Lord’s Prayer with her. That was an important part of finding her and helping her, and while I was on the floor with her saying the Lord’s Prayer, there was another explosion, which was the second plane hitting.”

Ron Clifford was in the South Tower lobby on 9/11 and led Jennieann Maffeo from the building, but she later died from her injuries

Unbeknownst to Ron at the time, among the passengers on that second plane were his sister, Ruth (45), and her four-year-old daughter, Juliana. Twenty years later, the confluence of circumstances that brought so much tragedy to Clifford’s door remain incalculable.

“You couldn’t make it up,” he says.

“You couldn’t do a math equation on it. Here I am on the floor with a woman badly burned and above me my sister’s plane hits with her daughter, and before that her best friend’s plane had hit. The circumstances are just unfathomable.”

Originally from Cork, where her paper-merchant father was a leading figure in business, Ruth — the only girl of five children — left for America with her mother at age 16, when her parents separated. In 1986, she opened her own spa, Clifford Classique, in the Newtown area, a suburb of Boston, drawing customers from all over Europe and the United States.

Despite her business success, after the birth of her daughter in 1997, Ruth became a full-time mother, devoted to the blonde little girl who was the centre of her and her husband David’s life.

“She absolutely adored Juliana,” says Ron. “They had a great life, flying all over the world, but visiting Cork together often.”

Ruth McCourt and her daughter, Juliana, lost their lives aboard the plane that hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11

On 9/11, Ruth was flying to a Deepak Chopra seminar on the West Coast. She was a devotee of the New Age guru, as was Paige Hackel (46), her close friend, who was travelling on American Airlines Flight 11, leaving at about the same time to go to Los Angeles. They had not travelled together because they had different frequent-flyer programmes. At the end of the trip, they planned a visit to Disneyland in California with Juliana.

“It wasn’t until I got home and I received a call from Ruth’s husband that I started to realise what had happened,” recalls Ron.

“He was going through some cancer treatment at the time and he was kind of confused. He called me to know where Ruth was: did I know where Ruth was? Then he said she had stayed with Paige. I called Paige’s husband and he had an idea of what was going on and shared it with me. It took a few hours to put it all together but I eventually got hold of Ruth’s secretary, who had booked the flight. It wasn’t until I had the exact flight that I really understood it, and my brothers were calling me from Ireland to find out if I was OK. It was very hard to let them know we were in trouble. That Ruth was on the plane with Juliana.”

After 41 days in intensive care, Jennieann died as a result of her injuries. Ron visited her in hospital, where her family had kept vigil at her bedside, willing her to live.

“She was in pretty bad shape but I had no idea just how bad it was,” he says. “I held out hope for her to live. After Ruth, Juliana and Paige died, I just hoped that maybe Jennieann would survive, but she didn’t. She died 40 days afterwards.”

He stayed in contact with the Maffeo family for some years after, but now “it’s a heartache to call them up”.

In 2006, Ron testified at the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for his involvement in the September 11 attacks and other terrorist plots.

The trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has claimed he planned the attacks, and his associates, Walid Muhammad Salih Mubarak Bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed Adam al-Hawsawi, has yet to take place.

“I want my day in court and when the time comes to go to Guantanamo for the trial, I will be there,” Ron says. “I hope in my lifetime that somebody is [held] accountable. All these people died and there is a mastermind in prison. I am very angry at how much time it is taking to get [a] trial.”

Ron’s testimony in 2006 helped him and his family better come to terms with the tragedy, he says. His daughter Monica, who was 15 at the time — and had turned 11 on September 11, 2001 — accompanied him and sat across from Moussaoui as, for the first time, she heard her father’s story.

“A cloud left our family after that,” Ron says. “Monica had never spoken about 9/11 and she attended the trial and sat across from Moussaoui. We were able to talk about it after that. Years later, when Monica did her college essay for the University of Vermont, she gave it to us to read. In her mind, that day was ‘my 11th birthday… the day Osama bin Laden tried to kill my dad’.”

In dealing with the past, Ron turned to intense therapy and also found solace in sailing, his favourite pastime. He has never returned to the World Trade Center site. “Even when the Pope visited, I didn’t go down,” he says.

“I just can’t do it… I don’t think I will ever go back. I don’t talk about that day really, to be honest. A handful of people at work just happened to find out and asked me about it. If anybody asks, I’ll tell them, but I generally just keep my thoughts to myself. I do know some people that have never gotten out of there. They are still there in their heads. And I just wanted to live life and enjoy life and not get distracted by such a momentous occasion. I think I’ve learned to cope and live with it.”

***

Joanne and Grace Cregan were sisters. As young girls growing up in the family home in Churchtown, Co Dublin, they had always shared a bedroom. Years later, when both women moved to the Big Apple to pursue their dreams, they bought identical apartments, just two floors apart in the same Brooklyn Heights building. They both had successful jobs in the bustling Manhattan financial district, shared the same circle of friends and watched TV together every night. Joanne was Grace’s big sister, but she was more than that — she was her best friend.

“The loss of Joanne to Grace was devastating and a loss that she will never forget or ever get over,” says Ronnie, brother to both women.

“Joanne was 32 years old when we tragically lost her in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A sister and daughter, Joanne was very much full of life and full of opportunities ahead of her.”

Dubliner Joanne Cregan, who had survived the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, lost her life on September 11, 2001

Joanne, the eldest of Ronnie and Mary Cregan’s three children, had completed a secretarial course after college and worked for a time with a financial institution in Dublin. She had her sights set on bigger things and, in 1992, announced that she was leaving Ireland for the US.

“Joanne was a social butterfly,” says her brother Ronnie. “She was always positive and loved her nights out, her catch-up with friends, and trips and weekends away. My sister Grace, who followed her big sister Joanne to America in the early 1990s, moved into an apartment with three other Irish girls from Churchtown and Dundrum.”

Joanne had survived the 1993 attack on the Twin Towers. After that bombing, Joanne’s mother, Mary, had told the Evening Herald how her daughter was led to safety after being trapped in darkness, 60 floors up, for over 12 hours.

Eight years later, she was working on the 105th floor of the North Tower as a PA with the investment and brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald when the first plane hit the building.

“I was in the Canary Islands when it happened,” says Ronnie. “I flew from there to London, to Dublin and eventually to New York. We were there for a week or 10 days because we were waiting on word. After a while we had to actually have a memorial mass in Brooklyn for Joanne. We couldn’t find her, she wasn’t in any of the hospitals, there was no contact. So then when we came home to Ireland, we had to have a funeral. Then after that, when there were remains found, which happened three times, we had to do it again. When someone dies, people have one funeral but we had to have three or four.”

Memories of that time in New York all those years ago are “hazy”, says Ronnie, but he does remember sitting along the water on the Brooklyn Bridge at night and looking straight across at the “red glow” coming out of the ground were the towers use to be.

“It was smouldering every night,” he recalls. “The enormity of what happened, even now, it’s hard to comprehend. There were so many things that we as a family never got to experience with Joanne, which in itself has been hard throughout the past 20 years.

“Our mother always speaks of and remembers her daughter by stories and memories which she cherishes of Joanne. One of my fondest memories was meeting with Joanne on her last Christmas in Dublin in The Duke pub on Duke Street, just meeting so many people as they came and went, and then walking back up Grafton Street later that evening arm in arm.”

***

For the Cregans, the Coughlans and the Cliffords, one of the hardest parts of grieving their loss is coming to terms with everything their loved ones have missed.

“Joanne never got to meet her three nieces and three nephews and her two godchildren,” says Ronnie Cregan. “The loss that those children never got to experience her is something we can never replicate or replace.”

Martin Coughlan’s daughters now have children of their own, a collective 10 grandchildren he never got to meet. His daughters talk warmly, often through tears, about everything he has missed. For their children, a generation with no lived experience of 9/11, there are difficult conversations about what happened to “Dado”.

“For the first few years of my children’s lives, I never told them,” says Orla Coughlan. “When September 11 came, I didn’t really share it with them. They were too little to understand. It took me a while to be able to talk to them about it.”

Had she lived, little Juliana McCourt would be 24. “Juliana would have been a mover and a shaker like her mother,” says her uncle Ron. “Ruth would definitely have coached her into somebody remarkable. We miss them both.”

Juliana McCourt died age four in the September 11 terrorist attacks

Today, as the world looks back on a day filled with death and despair, thoughts will turn to those who perished and the people they left behind. Twenty years is a milestone, but for the families, each year that has passed since 9/11 is as poignant as the next one. They are the 9/11 families, guided through their grief by the adage that life must go on, yet destined to “never forget” what happened that day. Somewhere in between, they have carved out their own way to move forward, their own rituals of remembrance.

Joanne Cregan was working on the 105th floor of the North Tower when the first plane hit the building on 9/11

Today, in Dublin, Ronnie Cregan and his family will come together for a private mass in memory of Joanne. In Manhattan, at a special ceremony at the World Trade Center’s memorial plaza, 14-year-old Emma Bowie will take to the podium to read a section of names from the list of the 2,983 who died on 9/11, among them the grandfather she never met — Martin Coughlan.

And somewhere in New Jersey, Ron Clifford will be on his sailboat, alone with his thoughts, but no doubt thinking of all those names.


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