Orlando family mourns son killed in Bali attack
By Pamela J. Johnson
Sentinel Staff Writer
October 22, 2002
Joe Milligan had just ridden the perfect wave, and he couldn't stop talking about it.
Over and over, the 23-year-old surfer described for friends how he barreled the 8-foot wave as it rolled toward the beaches of Bali.
"I am absolutely stoked," he said while drinking beer at the Sari Club in Kuta Beach two days later. "It was the best barrel of my life."
Later that night, on Oct. 12, Milligan went in search of a friend. But before Milligan could leave the nightspot, a bomb exploded, igniting the thatched roof and engulfing the club in flames.
Within minutes, scores of people were killed, many of their bodies so badly burned it may be months before they can be identified.
More than 10,000 miles away in the Orlando neighborhood of College Park, George and Julie Milligan heard on the Saturday night news that terrorist bombs had destroyed a Bali resort and that nearly 200 people had died.
They remarked on the tragedy but didn't connect it to their son.
"It never occurred to us that where surfers hang out would be considered a fancy resort," Julie Milligan said, referring to how the target was described on the news.
Later that day, the couple received a phone call from Australian Ben Evennett, 21, telling them that Joe Milligan hadn't been seen since the blast.
"It can't be Joe," Julie Milligan repeated like a mantra as she and her husband waited for five days, hoping by some miracle that their son had survived.
This past Friday night, a State Department official told the couple that although their son's body had been not been identified, Joe Milligan was one of five Americans killed or presumed dead in the attack.
"Joe was born and raised in Orlando," George Milligan said Monday. "He grew up in this house. People don't think terrorism can hit home. We're here to tell you that it can."
Joe Milligan had just graduated from Bond University near Surfer's Paradise, south of Brisbane, Australia, and was taking one last big surfing trip before looking for work in the import-export business.
Joe would have turned 24 on Halloween, and he had planned to celebrate with friends at Surfer's Paradise and be home by Christmas.
As he traveled and surfed his way around the world, Joe Milligan was the envy of his friends back home.
"We always had dreams of going to Bali, since Edgewater High School," said Robert Sean Robertson of Jacksonville. "He was the first one to get there. He lived his dreams, for sure."
The Milligans described their son as a free spirit.
"He lived in the moment," Julie Milligan said. "He used to like to tell me, 'Go with the flow. Chill, Mom.' "
Joe Milligan was fearless, they said as they looked at photos scattered on a coffee table showing a 2-year-old boy jumping off a 10-foot driving board.
Another friend, Catherine O'Connor, recalled the same daredevil.
"When we were 5, he used to dare me to do things, like jump off the roof," said O'Connor, 23, of San Francisco. "When we climbed trees, he would push me to go higher. Then he would encourage me to jump. He would always jump, and I wouldn't."
Years later, Joe jumped off cliffs into the ocean for the thrill of it. He loved extreme sports: bungee jumping, sky diving, hang-gliding. He sailed, skied, scuba-dived, rode a snowboard and white-water rafted.
"If you could ride it, Joe mastered it," George Milligan said.
But his greatest joy was riding that perfect wave.
"No matter how big and how crazy the waves were, we always pushed it to the next level," Robertson said. "Ride the barrel and get tubed. It's a heart-pounding, pure adrenaline rush."
But in a recent phone conversation with his parents, Joe Milligan sounded as if he was ready to ease back on surfing. Instead of talking exclusively about surfing, he wanted to chat about the economy and asked about the stock market.
"Dad, I've been doing a lot of thinking," he told his father. "I'm looking forward to getting started with the next phase of my life."
"It wasn't just about surfing," George Milligan said. "He was maturing."
On the night of the bombing, Joe Milligan, Evennett and two other surfing buddies went out to dinner. Evennett ordered a pizza with extra pineapple, and Milligan ate seafood pasta. Both ordered chocolate milk shakes.
They all had planned to go to the Sari Club, where they had arranged to meet two German women. But Evennett said he wasn't feeling well. Nearing the club, Evennett told the others that he was going back to the hotel to take aspirin and lie down. Walking to the room, he heard two blasts, one smaller one and then a huge explosion.
The electricity shut down and it was pitch black. Evennett ran back to the club to search for his friends. He heard shrieking and saw charred bodies strewn on the street. He watched in horror as badly burned people were pulled from the rubble.
When he found two of his friends, he was elated. "Where's Joe?" he asked them.
"They said he left the club," Evennett said Monday night in a call from his home in Adelaide, Australia.
Evennett began frantically looking for Milligan. When he didn't find him and lost hope that he would ever turn up, he searched Joe's belongings, found his address book and telephoned his mother.
"We didn't want to believe it," Julie Milligan said.
The Milligans and their daughter, Katie, 26, take comfort in knowing Joe died living his dream.
In a recent e-mail to his parents, he wrote: "Take care of yourselves and each other and always remember my motto: It's OK to work hard, as long as you play harder."
Pamela J. Johnson can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5171.
Copyright © 2002, Orlando Sentinel