War on terror involving Hilton Head Islander's son finds victory in the courtroom

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comSeptember 14, 2013 

Since the Twin Towers fell 12 years ago, most Americans have seen the war on terror as boots on the ground in the Middle East.

But for Don Havlish of Hilton Head Island, the war has looked much different. He has seen it take place in federal courthouses.

Havlish lost his son, Don Jr., in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Ashes associated with his son's body rest in the columbarium at First Presbyterian Church on Hilton Head.

For more than a decade, a lawsuit filed by his daughter-in-law and others -- Havlish et al. v. bin Laden et al. -- has made its way through the judicial system.

The Havlish case was the first to result in a judgment that the Islamic Republic of Iran was complicit in the 9/11 attacks. The court awarded damages of more than $7 billion to qualifying family members of 47 victims.

Now lawyers are going after a skyscraper on Fifth Avenue that they say belongs to Iran. Last week, a different federal judge agreed with the facts in that case.

The rulings are called historic, but the widowed Fiona Havlish said money is not the issue. She wants accountability. She wants to know the truth about happened to her husband, how and why.

She wants answers, if not for herself, for her daughter Michaela, who was 3 and in her first day of preschool the day her father went to work and did not come home.

He left a phone message that morning:

"Hi sweetheart, it's Don. I just wanted to call you and tell you that you will be hearing about an explosion in the World Trade Center and that it was in Building 1 and I am fine. I will talk to you later and try to get you on your cell. Bye."


Fiona Havlish begged her 53-year-old husband to stay home help see "Mikki" into the preschool class she was so excited about at Woodside Presbyterian Church in their hometown of Yardley, Pa. But he had an important meeting as a senior vice president of the international insurance firm Aon, which would lose 176 employees that day on the 101st floor of the South Tower. Fiona was a single mother with two children when she met Don at a corporate picnic, and they were engaged two months later.

For a while after the attacks, Fiona made the 90-minute ride into the city that her husband took each morning to work -- thinking that somehow she might find him among the homeless. Later, she found solace in volunteering at St. Paul's Chapel across the street from Ground Zero. At home in Bucks County, which lost 19 residents on 9/11, Fiona and others established a Garden of Reflection that is so beautiful, it is the state of Pennsylvania's official 9/11 memorial.

Also, she took action on a request her husband made on the Friday night before he died. For them, it was almost a Friday ritual. He would tell her to sit down and take in all the financial information she needed to know in case something happened to him. On that Friday, they actually did it. One of the things she wrote down was the name of his attorney. She was to call him if anything happened to Don.

Fiona did that, but was surprised weeks later when the attorney called to ask if she ever considered suing the terrorists. No, she had not. But when he used the word "accountable," she listened.

He took her to the law office of Thomas E. Mellon Jr. in Doylestown, Pa., who sat her in a rocking chair and listened to her story. Mellon began to envision a daring case. Fiona and a handful of widows and a bereaved mother in town were the first to agree to be plaintiffs. Mellon orchestrated an international investigation that involved eight law firms from around the nation.

It led to a Christmas present in 2011. U.S. District Judge George Daniels in Manhattan accepted 53 pages of unchallenged facts that link Iran, Hezbollah, al Quaida and others to the airplane hijackings that led to almost 3,000 deaths a decade earlier.

They used Iranian defectors and expert witnesses to prove to the court Iran's role in an unconventional war against America code-named "Shaitan dar Atash" ("Satan in Fire.") The "findings of fact and conclusions of law" read like a novel.

Before Mellon died earlier this year, he passed the baton to trial lawyer Dennis G. Pantazis of Birmingham, Ala.

Pantazis said the most damning evidence is that Iran aided the hijackers by concealing their travel through Iran to access al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan. If their passports had not been "washed," he said, 9/11 as we know it would never have happened.

Now the pursuit is to seize Iranian assets around the world. The lawyers expect a fight. But last Wednesday, also Sept. 11, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest made a judgment in favor of the federal government, which also claims the 650 Fifth Avenue skyscraper. The trial for the Havlish claims and other civil suits, which was to begin Monday, was postponed. But the court has now accepted as indisputable the same set of facts that establish the Havlish case.

Oddly enough, a lot of the information and trails that proved successful in the Havlish lawsuit began with author and investigator Kenneth Timmerman, son of another Hilton Head Islander, Millie Timmerman.


Today, Mikki Havlish is doing her own investigating -- asking her grandfather, aunt and uncle a lot of questions about a dad she barely remembers. She and her mother live in Boulder, Colo. She's a 10th-grader, almost old enough to drive.

Fiona Havlish said she has reinvented herself. A nurse for 22 years, she has now acted on her spiritual nature and has become a life coach, helping people cope when things go bad.

"My view is that 9/11 was really a wake-up call for this country, to stop and pay attention," she said. "Maybe live our lives a little bit differently with a little bit more love, with a little bit more caring. And looking out for the other person, because that's what the country did for all of us. I have never seen such an outpouring of love than what happened after 9/11."

Last week, Donald Havlish Sr. placed a fresh pot of yellow flowers in the church columbarium he helped create 29 years ago. They brighten the niches where his wife, Alma, and son, Don, rest. Some of his son's remains were actually found in the rubble in 2002, but what lies beneath the Lowcountry oaks and pines is earth and ash taken from Ground Zero, which families were given in wooden urns.

The elder Havlish says that, at 96, he has few worries. And he does not expect to see any money from the war on terror being waged in federal courthouses. He said anything he got would go to a couple of charities he would like to do more for.

The Christian burial ceremony at the columbarium helped, he said. And so do the court rulings.

But he added, "You're still never over it."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Related content:

Read the findings of fact and conclusions of law in the Havlish case, The dreaded call, the awful reality, and newfound calm, April 14, 2002

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