William Sword should have died in 2003 when a deranged young man entered his Princeton, N.J., home and stabbed him 15 times. Police intervened by shooting the 24-year-old intruder and Sword survived.
But instead, the longtime resident, who police said had been generous with the town's emergency services, was killed by a falling tree in his backyard during Hurricane Sandy on Monday.
"The only way to make sense of a coincidence like this is to view it as a coincidence and realize he was a great person affected by two tremendous tragedies," said Sword's brother-in-law Pete McDonough.
Sword, 61, was clearing debris from his driveway about 8:30 Monday night when he became trapped under a fallen tree and was pronounced dead on the scene, according to police.
"I have been a police officer for 25 years and this is the first time I have seen anything like this," said Sgt. Mike Cifelli of the Princeton Township police.
The town, home to Princeton University where Sword was a 1976 alumnus, has seen 60 to 80 roads closed because of downed trees and wires. Cifelli estimates 80 percent of its residents are out of power.
"It was tragic, horrible," said Cifelli. "Mr. Sword has been a real friend to the community and has been very generous with the emergency services. He was a good friend to us."
Sword, an investment banker with a wife and three adult children, is one of at least 61 deaths in the United States from Hurricane Sandy, according to the Associated Press.
Random and often bizarre in nature, these weather-related deaths can make grieving all the more difficult for family and friends.
"In New York right now there are now a multiplicity of disasters," said Pauline Boss, emeritus professor at University of Minnesota and an expert in ambiguous loss -- deaths that cannot be easily explained. "My gosh, you add fire and snow and it's so hard to believe."
Families from up and down the East Coast, as well as Mid-Atlantic states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, experienced Hurricane Sandy's rage.
In suburban New York, two boys, aged 11 and 13, were killed in North Salem when a 100-foot oak tree hit the family room in their house.
In Staten Island, a 28-year-old off-duty New York City police officer evacuated his relatives to their attic, then got trapped in his basement and drowned. A 14-year-old girl was found under the rubble of an apparently collapsed house.
In Queens, a 23-year-old woman was electrocuted after stepping into a puddle. A man in lower Manhattan was walking outside when he was swept by the water and dragged into a building, killing him.
In Connecticut, an Easton firefighter was killed in the line of duty, possibly when a tree fell on his fire truck. A 90-year-old woman was killed when a tree fell on a family in Mansfield. A 34-year-old Milford man, last seen swimming in heavy surf, was recovered by town police.
For Sword, tragedy happened twice. His first brush with death occurred on Jan. 23, 2003.
His assailant, Jelani Manigault, was a senior at the University of Maryland, who had been staying at the nearby Christian Science compound, Tenacre Foundation, with his parents and a girlfriend, according to Princeton police.
Manigault had knocked on the Sword family's door on Great Road, looking for help.
"Mr. Sword wanted to do everything to help the man," said Cifelli. "But the man suffered a mental illness and in the middle of an episode he took out a knife and turned it on Mr. Sword, stabbing him a number of times."
When police arrived, Manigault lunged at them with the same knife, so they shot Manigault. The near-fatal stabbing wounded Sword in the upper chest and shoulder, but after surgery, he recovered.
Daniel B. Rowe, one of Sword's colleagues at William Sword and Co., the firm founded by the victim's father, said that the event had made him more of a "lover of life."
"He was a very well-respected, well-connected guy, an old-school gentleman in every sense of the word," Rowe told Bloomberg in an obituary.
McDonough said Sword's financial generosity may or may not have been a direct outgrowth of nearly losing his life.
Trying to Find Meaning in Unimaginable Loss
Most families, "because of culture and religious beliefs and life experiences," tend to affix meaning to deaths they cannot understand, said Minnesota psychologist Boss, author of the 2006 book, "Loss, Trauma and Resilience."
"Whatever meaning you put on death is your meaning and needs to be respected, unless it has to do with self-destruction or retribution," she said. "Some people say it's fate and they put negative spin on it --' He was an evil man that's what he gets' -- and those meanings are horrendous."
Boss said the act of communities coming together will help victims' families heal. Isolation can be the worst "culprit" of those trying to deal with grief, she said.
Some people will need professional counseling, but most people are resilient, she said. "New Yorkers are good at that. They are communicative and express their feelings and all that leads towards resilience."
Most often, people blame themselves after a traumatic death, according to Boss. After 9/11, one woman whose husband died in the World Trade Center blamed the fact she had a newborn for her husband oversleeping. Normally, he was out of the towers by 9 a.m., but that day he slept in.
Months later, she reframed her grief, according to Boss, telling her, "He always set the alarm himself. He wanted another hour with me before he died."
Boss also debunks the over-used notion of "closure."
"That's a myth," said Boss. "Closure is something we do after a business deal. After loss you get to resolution, but the door is not closed. We always remember and hopefully with trauma."
As for Sword, he was "the pinnacle" of all levels of his Princeton community, according to his son-in-law McDonough.
Sword was active in Centurion Ministries, which works to assist wrongfully convicted persons in their defense and appeals processing; sang in a church choir; and was active in the Princeton Alumni Association, among other civic organizations.
He also served as a member of the advisory board of the Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad, which twice responded to Sword.
His family, wife Martha Sullivan Sword and three adult children, Gretchen, Hope and Will, are "holding up," said McDonough, but Hurricane Sandy is still wielding a heavy hand.
"The tragedy is compounded by the difficult situation right now -- no power, electricity or gasoline," he said. "But it also brings everyone together a bit."
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