Families to Testify at Guantánamo Bay About Loved Ones Lost to Terror

Frank Heffernan thought his daughter Megan was in South Korea where she was working as an English teacher when he heard the news of a devastating terrorist attack on the Indonesian island of Bali on Oct. 12, 2002.

Then the State Department called.

Megan Heffernan, 28, who was born and raised in Alaska and had a passion for travel, was among the 202 people who were killed in the coordinated bombings carried out by an affiliate of Al Qaeda at a pub and nearby club in Bali. She had gone there with friends on a vacation.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her,” said Mr. Heffernan, mopping his eyes with a tissue at his home in Florida.

In the random, cruel fashion of terrorism, the bombing killed tourists and workers from 22 nations who happened to be in a commercial district, including 38 Indonesians. Among the dead were Australian and British citizens who were there for a rugby match, Americans passionate about surfing — and Megan and two Korean friends, who were out sightseeing when the bombs exploded.

Now, 20 years later, about a dozen relatives who carry the memory of the mostly forgotten attack are heading to another faraway place, Guantánamo Bay, in the U.S.-controlled portion of Cuba. There they will represent the dead for a military jury charged with deciding a prison sentence for two Malaysian men who pleaded guilty to conspiring in the bombings.

Among those making the trip are Mr. Heffernan and his wife, Bonnie K. Hall, whose own daughters knew Megan in Anchorage. Megan’s mother, Sandra, died of the coronavirus three years ago. Mr. Heffernan said he was going to “to express to the court the true loss” of his daughter, “a very thoughtful and religious girl who loved to travel.”

He said he trusts the court — the judge and the military jury that is expected to be assembled next week — to decide a fair sentence.

“We don’t even know the involvement of those two men,” Ms. Hall said of the prisoners, who have been held by the United States since 2003, first by the C.I.A. and then from 2006 at Guantánamo Bay.

In an interview, Mr. Heffernan said he had not dwelled on trying to understand what was behind the attack.

“Whatever the depraved and twisted reasoning behind the bombing, whether it was because of government, religion or national differences, the bombing cost 202 people their lives,” he wrote in his victim impact statement for the court.

It has left “eternal heartache to thousands of family members and friends,” he added.

Prosecutors never proposed the death penalty in the three-defendant Bali bombing case, unlike in the Sept. 11 case at Guantánamo. Now, with this week’s guilty pleas, only an Indonesian man known as Hambali will face trial as the accused “operational mastermind” of the Jemaah Islamiyah movement, which carried out the bombing. That trial could start next year.

Mr. Heffernan said he became an opponent of capital punishment years ago after a visit to Vatican City, where he saw Pope John Paul II. It was an epiphany of sorts, he said, that brought him in line with “the theology against the death penalty.”

“Also, being old, I realize that if you are given enough grace to live that long, you can look back and regret the things that you’ve done,” he added.

Megan’s favorite color was purple, and she favored a T-shirt whose slogan read, “Life Is Uncertain. Eat Dessert First,” Mr. Heffernan said. She would have turned 50 last month.

Every year since she died, Mr. Heffernan has marked Megan’s birthday, Dec. 12, by donating a set of purple vestments for a priest to wear while celebrating Mass. Each has a little tag commemorating his daughter.

Last year’s donation has already been sent to Alaska, Ms. Hall said. “They will travel with a priest from village to village.”

By the time of her death, Megan Heffernan had skied in Argentina, taken a trip during high school to Greece and visited Ireland with her older brother Michael, younger sister Maureen and Maureen’s husband. Their father paid for the trip but did not tag along for fear he might spoil the fun.

“Children born to a Heffernan father are the luckiest kids in the world,” said Ms. Hall, who recalled how he wrote Megan every week, using a No. 2 pencil and legal pad, after she moved to Busan, South Korea, to teach English to doctors, practicing physicians, in a post-doctorate education program. Sometimes he sent care packages of Pringles, cookies and other favorites.

She traveled throughout Asia, to Japan, Taiwan and Thailand. She went from China to Vietnam on riverboats, down the Mekong and took a bus to Hanoi, her father said. He had visited some of those places during the Vietnam War when, in 1967 and 1968, he was an Army helicopter medevac pilot and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his valor. “She would go somewhere and tell us afterward,” Mr. Heffernan said.

She had plenty of ideas of how she wanted to spend the rest of her life. She took photos with a camera her father had given her. He thought she might want to be a photographer. She was pretty enough to be a model, he said, and had the grace to perhaps be an actress. When she was finished traveling, she wanted to buy a lodge in Alaska.

The State Department called within a day or so of the bombings. Mr. Heffernan learned his daughter had been on vacation in Indonesia. Rescue workers in Bali, 13 time zones away, were trying to identify the survivors, the injured and the missing.

The next call asked for Megan’s dental records. It was then, he said, that he began praying for forgiveness for any faults he had made along the way in raising his eldest daughter.

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