Wilton woman recalls her friend, a 9/11 victim

Vanessa H. Elias of Wilton graduated from Joel Barlow High School in Redding in 1989. She returned there Monday, Sept. 12, for an event that honored 1987 Barlow graduate Peter Burton Hanson, who died on Sept. 11, 2001. Each year since 2004, Hanson’s parents, Lee and Eunice Hanson of Easton, give a scholarship — the Peter Burton Hanson Award for Humanity — to a student who embodies many of their son’s character traits and to pay tribute to all who died on 9/11.  

Elias was friends with Peter, who died along with his wife Sue and their young daughter Christine, when United Airlines flight 175 flew into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Following is the speech she gave.

Before I start, I would first like to say thank you to the Joel Barlow administration for taking this time out of the demanding schedule to enable us to reflect on Pete’s life and 9/11 — and to Eunice and Lee Hanson for offering this award.

It’s an honor for me to be a part of it. My name is Vanessa Elias. My husband survived 9/11, my friend and his family were killed on 9/11 and most recently, my brother just survived the terrorist attack at the airport in Brussels.

I met Pete — Peter Burton Hanson — in these very halls of Barlow back in 1985. I was a freshman, and he was a junior. I would have described him then as a bouncy deadhead, with a mop of curly red hair and smelling of a mix of patchouli and smoke from hanging out in the smoking lounge (we had one of those).

He was so friendly, a straight talker, with a great laugh. He had a big heart and no problem speaking his mind, especially when standing up for someone. He was like a big brother to me. And he hated my music. Pete had grown up outside the U.S. His life experience gave him perspective on ways of being and living. He saw and knew that there was a world outside this Fairfield County — or even American — bubble.

I believe this life experience helped make him the special person he was and as our friend Paula said to me last night, Pete lived a big life in the time he was here on earth. He questioned authority, never tried to fit in, he was always true to himself, he championed the underdog and always tried to lift people up, and he went after his passions.

We kept in touch after graduation — he was at Northeastern, and I was at Boston University. He took me to cool music shows like Thelonius Monk, sketchy and amazing jazz bars, and gave me tapes of “happy” music (mine were alternative and depressing).

My now husband and I continued to hang out with Pete and Sue at their place in Jamaica Plain  — and we last saw Pete just five months before that September.

For me, 9/11 has very conflicting emotions. My husband worked on the 64th floor of Tower Two. After a bunch of unsuccessful phone call attempts, I finally got ahold of my husband, and he explained it was the other building that had been hit, that he could see papers flying and debris burning.

This was before the time of texting, so I had to hang up with him to call his dad and let him know he was OK. While I was talking to his dad, I had the TV on, and I said, I swear I saw another plane hit the other tower — just about half way up and my terror started again.

I had no idea who was on that plane. I didn’t hear from my husband for at least an hour but got the call when he got out below, and he gave me a quick description of the horror of chaos, blood and people twirling to their death from the burning buildings from where he was standing at the base of the buildings.

By then I had a long list of family to call back and say he was OK, so we hung up again. Seconds or a few minutes later, I watch his ginormous, indestructible building collapse. I was again tortured and thinking he was at the bottom of that pile of rubble and smoke. But, finally, after another hour I was lucky enough to get the call from him that he was OK.

Stuck in the city for the night as all ways in and out were closed, he was OK.

A couple hours later, the very same day, on Sept. 11, I got a package from my friend Pete and Sue — a baby gift for my six-week-old. I wouldn’t open it because I wanted my husband there with me. I waited until Eugene was home the next day. We opened up the package and the sweet card, still not knowing.

We didn’t have cable and most of the stations were out — I got one from New York or New Jersey but eventually turned it off. It was too much to see all the signs and candles and desperate attempts for people to find their loved ones.

When we opened it the next day, we still had no idea. It wasn’t until a few days later, when we had gotten away to Vermont that I got a phone call from my mom.

“Vanessa, honey, I have to tell you something. You knew someone on that plane. It was Pete, his wife and little Christine.”

My own scream still haunts me. The plane that hit Eugene’s building was carrying Pete, Sue and Christine. It’s so personal and painful for so many of us that lived through 9/11 that we don’t talk about it — or when we do it feels wrong — as if we are bragging about our connection to this historical event.

But for us, it’s not some page in a history book or a news clip. It was a pivotal day in our lives, in the world, a marker in time of pre- and post-9/11 life. And I have a responsibility to share. Pete was only wrong about one thing as far as I’m concerned. In his emails to me in the weeks prior to 9/11, we were trying to set up a time when we could get together, and he said, settle in, you’re a new mom, don’t worry, we’ll have time.

We never got the time. The anniversary of 9/11 reminds me — and should remind all of us — that the people in our lives are precious — and that can change in a split second.

Reflect, be aware, live authentically. What you do and say matters. Get perspective in life — go to the city, travel, push yourself to see the world from other perspectives that you can gain insight and be the biggest person that you can be. Our world has — and has had — many innocent men, women and children suffer and die. We are not alone in that.

World Wars, poverty, the Middle East, Syria — we know those are places where people are suffering. But it’s not real to us, we don’t really understand it because we don’t have a connection to it.

You are the next generation to carry the memory forward. With the story of Pete, and my story, you now have a connection. Don’t let it go. Thank you.