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You may think of it as the strangest collision in the strangest week in American memory. You might call it the deadly serendipity of circumstances, an incredible freak of science and mathematics and airline schedules, or the terrible collateral of terrorist carnage.
Ruth Clifford McCourt and Paige Farley Hackel would say you were wrong to think of their story as random--if only they were still here to tell it.
McCourt and Hackel were best friends for more than a decade. They toured Africa together. They were meditation partners. In their mid-40s, they still were turning heads all over New England. "Soul sisters," they called themselves. Separate the two and the universe might be thrown dangerously out of balance.
Tuesday, they were traveling with each other again, driving to Boston's Logan International Airport to begin a vacation in Southern California. With Ruth's daughter Juliana in tow, they would see friends and spend a few days at Deepak Chopra's Center for Well Being in La Jolla.
But their togetherness ended at the airport: Try as they might, they couldn't get seats on the same plane.
Hackel, 46, left first, on American Airlines Flight 11. Ruth McCourt, 45, and Juliana, 4, boarded United Airlines Flight 175.
In New York, McCourt's brother, Ronald Clifford, had arrived at the World Trade Center from his home in New Jersey. He was 15 minutes early for a business meeting. As he paced the lobby, he felt the building shake.
It was Paige Hackel's flight crashing into the north tower.
Clifford spotted a woman whose skin had been singed. He led her out of the building and helped her find medical treatment, according to relatives. Then he looked up and saw the plane carrying his sister and niece crash into the south tower.
On Saturday, Hackel's family, including her mother, husband and stepson, attended a funeral Mass for McCourt and her daughter in East Lyme, Conn. Today, the McCourt clan will travel north to Boston for Hackel's service. The brother who saw it all insisted on handling the arrangements.
"This is all completely appropriate," said McCourt's mother, Paula Scott. "I knew that if one of them had to go, both of them would have to go. And now our families have come together.
"My daughter and Paige were terribly connected."
One morning 11 years ago, Paige Hackel walked into Clifford Classiques, a spa on Centre Street in Boston that Ruth Clifford had opened in 1985. A conversation about everything from skin treatments to the afterlife ensued. The two women discovered they had, in different ways, devoted their lives to healing.
The third of six children and the only daughter of a paper merchant and his wife in Cork, Ireland, Ruth Clifford had immigrated to the United States at age 17. After living briefly in Los Angeles, she moved to Rochester, N.Y., where she was hired to open satellite campuses around the country for a modeling school based there. In 1982, she settled in Boston.
The woman who entered her shop had a tougher life. Born in the Boston suburb of Framingham, the former Paige Farley, one of three siblings, spent much of her early years battling drug and alcohol addiction. She successfully completed treatment in 1985 and, by the time she met Clifford, she was volunteering with Salvation Army treatment programs and working toward a master's degree in substance abuse counseling.
She sought out spiritual counsel from self-help gurus, notably author Wayne Dyer. She met and married Allan Hackel and they settled into a home in Newton, not far from McCourt's. Their answering machine playfully urges friends to "take a deep breath, smile, enjoy the day."
"Paige had been through a lot," says Mimi Torp of Santa Monica, who was a friend of both women. But now "she was married to a husband who . . . was a very supportive man."
The new friends made a striking pair on the streets of Boston. Clifford, who had done some modeling, was tall with fire-red hair. Hackel, who ran triathlons, had dark hair and bright eyes that commanded attention.
Hackel introduced Clifford to meditation. They had traveled to Chopra's center in La Jolla at least once before. In recent years, Hackel had studied with a colleague of Chopra's, Debbie Ford, author of the New York Times bestseller "The Dark Side of the Light Chasers."
Hackel was a member of an "integrative coaching" group that met over the phone every Tuesday. She found Ford's "shadow process" so inspiring that she made plans to start an AM radio show to be called "Spiritually Speaking."
"For many people who have been on the road to recovery, it's not about trying to get rid of or change everything," says Ford. "It's about learning to love and integrate all parts of you."
In September 1994, Clifford married David McCourt, owner of a construction business, in a ceremony at the Vatican. When Juliana was born, Hackel was her godmother. In 1999, the McCourts moved to a waterfront home in New London, Conn., David's hometown.
To bridge the distance, the friends scheduled outings. Hackel would come to Connecticut for McCourt's St. Patrick's Day parties, or McCourt would travel north to join Hackel on trips to Loon Mountain in New Hampshire.
In January of this year, McCourt, Hackel and Hackel's mother, Marjorie Farley, visited South Africa and Zimbabwe. In March, they went skiing. Last month, McCourt helped her friend organize a birthday party for Hackel's mother in Boston.
The California trip would be another opportunity to be together. McCourt would tag along with Hackel on a four-day intensive session with Ford at Chopra's. They would visit friends in Los Angeles and take Juliana to Disneyland.
It wasn't until Tuesday night that their loved ones pieced together the 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.
In California, Ford said she believes that in some way, the proximity of the deaths of Hackel and the two McCourts were "planned, fated. . . . I don't really believe in coincidences."
Family and friends say McCourt and Hackel would have responded to the terrorist attack by emphasizing peace and negotiation.
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 California, a Paige Farley Scholarship will allow people to attend Ford's training program tuition-free.
As she prepared for the two funerals, Paula Scott, McCourt's mother, 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," she says. "But I had a vision of all of them holding onto each other."