IT is an unimaginable scene of apocalyptic horror: A mother's two small sons are ripped from her arms as she flees with them from a raging hurricane and are swept away by waves as their mother screams in terror. She is screaming and running for help to houses along the street knocking on people's doors, but no one apparently feels able to help her and she is left on the street.
It chilled us to the core when we heard New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg speak about it on Monday and chilled us even more when we discovered they were part of our extended Irish family because their dad and grandparents are from Donegal. We hoped it wasn't true. Some of the details have since been confirmed, others have not. But we know enough to force us to grapple with disturbing questions about the level of compassion in America and, indeed, whether we in Ireland might keep our doors closed too.
Police searching for the two young brothers found the remains of Brandon (2) and Connor Moore (4) only yards from where they went missing in Staten Island, according to the ' New York Post'. The boys' mother Glenda Moore, a 39-year-old nurse, is said to have spent 12 hours screaming in the street after they were swept away, but residents would not help her look for them.
She said that neighbours refused to take her in or help her, although this was denied. But the facts are that the boys were sucked away by floodwater after Mrs Moore's car became stalled.
After the boys disappeared, Mrs Moore knocked on a nearby door for help but was told: 'I don't know you. I'm not going to help you.' Mrs Moore then tried another neighbour near her Staten Island home, but when she rang the bell they turned off the lights and refused to answer, the ' New York Daily News' reported.
Mrs Moore is married to Damien (39), who works at the New York Sanitation Department and was helping with hurricane disaster prevention at the time.
Fr Philip Daly, a priest in Donegal parish of Portnoo, told the Irish Independent the tragedy was very hard to accept, especially the failure of the neighbours to take the mother in. "I think that what added to the awfulness of the situation was the lack of support . . . Whether it was fear or not, I don't know, but it was a rather strange reaction to someone in need of support," he added.
Like all of us, Fr Daly was desperately searching for answers. But this did not happen on a lonely, isolated street. It happened near Fr Capodanno Boulevard, which is increasingly used as a "short cut" to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge into New York.
When we travel to America and see the numbers of homeless on the streets and the lack of a safety net, we think of America sometimes as lacking in compassion.
Every day Americans are dying prematurely at the rate of 72 a day, or three per hour, because they lack health insurance, according to the consumer advocacy group Families USA. And it's probably no coincidence that the number of uninsured Americans is roughly similar to the number on food stamps -- 46 million. So how can the wealthiest nation in the world not have proper health cover for all? Are Americans inherently lacking in compassion? Is that why this mother in Staten Island was left alone and abandoned to cope with her horror?
It would be simplistic to think so. I have come to believe after two decades living and working among them that the majority of Americans do not lack compassion nor do they have a skewed moral compass.
Rather, I believe that most of them care about the less well-off but the change they want in creating a fairer society is not easy to achieve. After all, it took 80 years to finally get as far as Obama's limited healthcare reform.
I believe that for the very reason that it is the wealthiest nation in the world, very powerful vested interests and very wealthy lobbying forces are always going to be aligned against those who want to change the status quo and introduce legislation to help the less well-off. Lobbying groups are active in both parties and it has been estimated that there are six registered healthcare lobbyists for every member of Congress.
This is a huge country of over 300 million people and among them some are bound not to care about such tragedies. It can also be a violent society, so others may fear if they helped they might get hurt themselves, some would be suspicious, some would be afraid.
That is not to excuse, merely to put this awful tragedy in some kind of context. I also believe that there is not that much difference between people anywhere and while it is unlikely, we hope, that such a tragedy would happen in Ireland, we must remember that we need look no further than the Ryan Report in 2009 to know that we too are capable of our own kind of cruelty.