We weren’t doing anything wrong. We weren’t drinking or doing drugs. We were good kids hanging out on the last night of summer. But that Sunday night of Labor Day weekend 30 years ago ended in a way we never could have predicted.

It was eight kids in a Toyota pick-up truck versus an unforgivably curvy, country road. Two were up front and six of us were in the back. It was a beautiful summer night. We were young. We were having fun together. A ride anywhere with the breeze blowing back our hair was excitement enough for us.

Before we left I told my friend Brian that he and Peter had the safest seats. They were sitting against the truck cab window below the roll bar. I don’t even know why I said it. But I’d never forget what Brian said. He said he’d switch with me.

I had known Brian since we were five years old. He was nice. I mean it. Nice. In every way a boy could be nice. There was something innately good about him. Ask anyone. I knew he’d switch with me. Of course he would. But, I said I was fine. Maybe because I didn’t want to seem scared or make him move. He seemed happy next to Peter. Besides, what did it matter? We were going for a short ride.

Only it did matter. It’s why I’m writing this and Brian has been gone for 30 years.

There are things you will never forget about an accident like that one. You’ll never forget the things that were said before. You’ll never forget the moment the truck lunged down the driveway and turned right onto Yankee Peddler Path. You’ll never forget how you were nervous we were going too fast, but figured you were just being a wimp. You’ll never forget the feeling of the wheels sliding out from underneath you….how impossibly long that felt, like it was happening in slow motion, like there was time to stop what would come next. You’ll never forget the sounds of a one-ton vehicle flipping over. You’ll never forget the very clear, and yet, almost unimportant, calm understanding that you are going to die.

But what you’ll really never forget is the silence. Once the truck came to the final landing spot, there was silence. A quiet from briefly losing consciousness, maybe, but no. The quiet was this lag of time where the accident was over, but the speed of life hadn’t caught up to it yet. As if it was too horrible for life to recognize it just yet, so it waited to collect itself. You’ll never forget that, just briefly, the world stopped spinning.

Then life catches up. The quiet is invaded by sirens, shouts, neighbors coming to help, and screams for help from a friend pinned under the truck. Chaos.

I try to get up but there is something heavy on me. I’m moved by an EMT, who, without hesitation, slices the legs of my pants with a knife. There is talk about the blood. Too much blood. On my clothes, in my hair. I have no real sense of my condition, but I don’t feel like I’m bleeding out. And I’m not. The blood is not mine. It is Brian’s. He is what was on top of me.

Brian. That beautiful boy with the bushy brown hair and dark brown eyes with the insanely long lashes who played hockey and loved his family and his friends. Brian who asked me to a boy-girl party in fourth grade while we finished our ice cream on the stage of High Hill Elementary school on a Friday, making me feel like the luckiest girl in the world. Brian who patiently taught me how to jet ski at Camp Laurelwood and could dance ridiculously well and who seemed to always have a smile on his face. Brian.

I’d be okay. I was not even all that hurt. Broken ribs. Broken wrist with road burn so deep it couldn’t be in a cast. Two other friends from the back would be okay too. And miraculously, after months in the hospital and a grueling recovering process, our friend who somehow took the weight of that truck on her hips, recovered. To this day I will never understand how she survived the accident and her injuries, but every single time I see her I appreciate the wonder that she is.

The two boys in the cab of the truck were okay too, only they weren’t. How could they be? They saw everything. My friend driving the truck treasured his friends, and Brian was his best friend. He never wanted to hurt anyone. I love him dearly and think about all he lost that night, pieces of himself maybe. How quietly and bravely he shouldered that burden. No one walked away unscathed.

Brian wasn’t the only one to die that night. Another boy, a year older, died instantly too. I didn’t know Peter well, but he seemed like a really good person too, dearly loved by his friends and family. I’ve never been able to reconcile how unlikely it was that he was with us that night. And how difficult that must be for his family and friends. The rest of us were good friends for many years. I always felt like Peter shouldn’t have been there, as if it mattered to think this way, as if any of it made sense or I got a say.

That’s really the lesson. Cheating death is random, based on a million small inconsequential decisions that were made that day, that night. I’ve thought about what would have happened if I did switch places with Brian. Would he have been haunted by offering up his seat if I had been the one to die? Trying to find some rhyme or reason to any of it is futile and will drive you mad.

You also learn quickly that there are no do overs. As much as you dream of a time machine that changes the course of events that night, you don’t get one. You can change nothing about what happened. You learn how unexpected death is. How one minute you can be having fun and the next you are certain you are going to die.

You start to understand the physics of death. You know that the way the truck flipped and where we were sitting made a huge difference. One seat meant instant death. One meant the truck landed on you. One meant you rolled out fairly unscathed. This will stay with you.

For many years after, I thought about every single tiny decision I made. I thought a lot about where I sat in a car, what roads we were on, how fast we were driving. For years I couldn’t switch my seat on a plane, or anywhere, ever. I thought through every possible thing that could go wrong before I did anything. I tried so hard to be sure I didn’t give death the opportunity to sweep in and finish what it started when I was fifteen years old. But it was a waste of time.

Ultimately, cheating death makes you realize that death is there, all the time, as a possibility. You know that it can happen to you. You know it without doubt. And instead of letting it breaking you, you let it empower you. You get that life is short, but more than that, it can end when you least expect it. Most people can only intellectualize this idea, whereas we, the survivors of accidents, the cheaters of death, feel it in our bones. And somehow that has made me more fearless, more curious, more open to experience life fully, just in case I end up in the wrong seat.

The anniversary of this accident always weighs heavily on me, thinking of Peter and Brian and their families, always…along with all of us in that truck. But this year it’s particularly personal. My oldest child is a sophomore in high school, fifteen years old, the same age I was the night of that accident. I see my daughter and can’t believe we were that young, that I was that young when this happened to me. How my life has been colored by this one night, this one ride, this one moment in time.

I’m grateful for the 30 years I’ve been borrowing from death, from Brian, from Peter, from deciding to stay in my spot in the truck, from the physics of the accident working out so I made it out alive. I’d be lying if I said I had some great understanding of the universe or why I’m still here. I don’t. And it doesn’t matter anyway. No understanding or lessons learned can change the fact that I still think of Brian and miss him. His wild hair, his gorgeous brown eyes, his love of life, his positive personality, his exuberance, his warm smile, and his kind, kind heart. The only thing I know for sure is that his light is too bright to ever go out.

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  1. Beyond powerful writing M, you keep living life to the full, for yourself, for your family and for Brian and Peter. Xx

    1. M. You have gift for capturing emotion. That was a beautiful tribute. Thank you Bill for sharing your memory, I’m not sure I’m brave enough. Brian and Peter will be forever missed. I relive that night so frequently, not daily anymore but it always slips in and becomes part of who you are. Keep writing Mere and God bless the Nees and Daltons.

      1. Thanks, D. Some of my favorite times are when you, me, Sue, Lisa and Kurt are in the same place together. It feels special to me to be around each of you but together, I don’t know, it feels really nice. Like we all can understand without even talking about it. Love you!

  2. Such powerful writing. I could feel the air of that typical Madison night as I read your horrific story. Thank you for sharing. I spent some time in the hospital with the girl who had the weight of the truck on her hips. She was still recovering when I arrived on the Yale pediatric ward on 10/17/85. I believe that we dropped off a boy who is your brother shortly before we wrecked. He was lucky that he was not in the car and luckily no one died that day. It is amazing how much we remember from incidents like these. Thanks again.

  3. What a beautiful trubute. I remember this like it was yesterday as well. I knew Peter and his brother John from our many years together in Catholic school in Madison. We were friends and I will never forget walking into my freshman orientation at Mercy High and learning about this accident. It took my breath away. I knew Brian too, but not as well. Such a scary thing. You are right, you cannot cheat death. But wow, it all just hits very close to home all over again as a parent now. Thanks for sharing this–very well written–and I am sure it was not easy to write.

  4. I love your stuff! And this especially hits home for me. I ran with the crowd that was drinking, smoking, taking drugs and I often marvel at the miracle (some of us) got out alive.

  5. Meredith, It must have been so difficult for you and your other friends in the truck. Thank you for keeping my brother Brian’s memories alive. He was a very special person. We mourn him for the person he was (goofy and loveable adolescent) and we mourn him for the man he could have been. It is hard to believe he would have been 45 years old. There is no rhyme or reason why he and Peter died that night 30 years ago, besides it was “God’s will..” You can’t second guess decisions made.
    This may sound crazy but about 3 years ago a psychic told me that Brian wanted us all to know that he is okay. He was still making jokes about his big feet. He was happy that I named my son after him. He stressed for us not to worry. Even now, he is concerned about his friends and family. So, no survivor guilt!! Brian would not want that. Be happy and enjoy your friends and family.

    1. hi michele. Nope. No survivor guilt at all. Just plain old miss him and the future he might have had. An accident like this changes you, but not in all bad ways. Definitely grateful and always remember the good times with Brian…there wasn’t anything else when he was around. Lots of love to you and your family.

  6. Meredith…. You are amazing. Unfortunately, I remember that night well and will never forget it. Too tragic to even describe. Both Brian and Peter were unbelievable people, as well as all involved that night. ️️Hugs and prayers to you tonight . Hug your hubby and your kids extra tight tonight!! Love you and our childhood forever!!

  7. Beautifully written, Meredith. I lost an ex-boyfriend on Labor Day Weekend when I was 17 years old. His death was due to a drug addiction. Then my natural mom passed three years ago on September 4. So, for me too, Labor Day weekend brings much emotion.

  8. Wow, simply amazing.. That is some powerful writing.. It has brought out so
    many emotions that I haven’t felt in a long time.. I cannot believe it has been 30 years.. Thank you for sharing!!

  9. Wow! This is so well written and it brings back a ton of raw emotions. I was the first person on the scene that fateful night as the accident happened right in front of my next door neighbors house. I had just got home from working at the movie theater and I was locking the front door when I heard the truck pass by my house going way to fast. I heard the screeching tires and the loud crash as the truck flipped over and slammed into the pavement. Then a moment of eerie silence followed by screams for help. I immediately yelled to my Father to call 911 and come help me as I went running out the door to help. I remember my Father yelling at me to not go out there, not because he didn’t want me to help but because he wanted to protect me from what I might see. When I arrived on the accident scene I remember seeing Sue streaming for help as she was pinned under the truck. I felt so bad because there was nothing I could do to help her. I then saw Peter laying on the pavement and knew immediately he was gone from the extent of his injuries. Damien then appeared from the darkness and miraculously he was uninjured. I later found out he was in the front seat. He was clearly in shock and tried to move Peter but I quickly stopped him as I knew it was too late. I moved around the other side of the truck and saw 3 more bodies laying unconscious on the grass. I thought OMG these are all my friends and classmates. What can I do to help? Then I saw 1 more body and knew again that they had died as well. It was too dark and I couldn’t tell who it was. Just then I saw Damien again and I asked him who it was………..he said “Brian Nee”. My heart sank. Brian was such a nice kid. My brother Tim was his age and they played Lax together and we all skied together in Vermont many times. Just then my Father arrived on the scene as well as the first Madison volunteer fireman. They started assessing the injured and the focus shifted to Sue who was pinned under the truck. The fireman said they needed something to prop up the truck once they lifted it off of Sue so my Father and I sprinted to our house and came back with a wheelbarrow full of firewood which wedged under the truck as they lifted it to free Sue. At this point there were dozens of fireman and EMT’s on the scene and so we stepped back to let them help the injured. My Mother was standing there and I cried uncontrollably on her shoulder as I told her about Brian and Peter and what I had seen. Part of me wished I had listened to my Father and not gone out there but that’s just not in my nature. What I saw that night will be forever seared in my memory. For years I went way out of my way to drive home just so I wouldn’t pass the accident scene. I felt so bad for the Nee and Dalton families as well as all the other accident victims. I hope Brian and my brother Tim are playing lacrosse or skiing together somewhere in heaven. That thought brings I smile to my face. This is the first time I’ve ever shared my memory of that night I hope this helps you as it has helped me. Thanks and God Bless.

  10. Meredith, what a beautiful article and tribute. You are all so strong and courageous. I also cannot believe it has been 30 years since the accident – still powerful memories and emotions from the day. Prayers for everyone. ❤

  11. Meredith, that was a truly beautiful, heart wrenching writing on Brian. I was in tears reading it.

    Here’s an ode I wrote 16 years ago about Brian. I know he was a tad shy of 16 when that accident happened, but under the cloak of poetic license, I had him at 16.

    It was one of the worst phone calls I had ever received! It was early morning in San Jose, California, in September, 1985, when I received that phone call from my sister Joanne, in North Madison, Connecticut. Her precious son Brian had been killed in an auto accident, the night before. Brian was a month shy of sixteen and was the youngest of Kevin & Joanne’s six children.

    I dreadfully relive that telephone call and the ensuing tragedy, over and over! Brian and our son Todd were the same age, having been born within a month of each other.

    I wrote this poem in October of 1999, at the time Brian would have just turned 30. His cousin Todd, would die 10 ½ years later at the age of 40..

    Brian, Young Brian, Was Only Sixteen!

    Brian, young Brian, was only sixteen!
    Though gone many years, it’s still a bad dream!

    Since such a young boy, just why did he leave?
    He left much too soon, that’s why we still grieve!

    Think of him often, and still can’t discern,
    at only sixteen, why was it his turn?

    Just one of those things, we never will know,
    just can’t understand, why he had to go.

    For only God knows, Dear God, whom we love,
    knows why He called him, to heaven above.

    Perhaps, he’s happy, it’s we still so sad,
    sisters, and brother, and mother and dad.

    His uncles and aunts, all of his cousins,
    and all his old friends, numbering dozens!

    All wondering how, but not knowing how,
    he’d be like today, what he’d be like now.

    The years swiftly fled, so fast did they go,
    I don’t know just why, just know that it’s so.

    Brian now thirty, a thought seeming strange,
    I wonder now how, in death do we change.

    Is he still a boy, or is he a man?
    I really don’t know, just can’t understand.

    Know that we miss him, and hope that he knows,
    knows we all love him, and hope, I suppose,

    he knows in our thoughts, he still is held near,
    and once in a while, we still shed a tear!

    For thoughts, that we have, are of but a boy,
    sad feelings are mixed, with some of pure joy!

    Perhaps, that’s the way, it just has to be,
    he’s only a boy, in our memory.

    And someday, for sure, but don’t know just when,
    we’ll see this young boy, dear Brian again!

    Uncle Peter, still wondering………….October 1999

    1. Just beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing it. His friends will appreciate it so much. He really was so precious. My little guy is almost 9 and has wild brown hair and dark brown eyes and a kind heart like Brian. Appreciate your poem so very much. Much love.

  12. I was about to turn off my computer when I saw your title and the photo of Brian. My heart jumped a little; I worried I wasn’t ready to read on. But I did, and I was quickly comforted by your honesty and compassion. Thank you for sharing. As one the the six in the back of that truck, I will never forget Brian and Peter and the bond all of us share.

    1. Hi Lisa. I’m so glad you saw it. I was going to email it since I know you aren’t on FB much. I didn’t want to intrude on anyone’s privacy and so I didn’t use any names other than Peter and Brian. It’s such a personal story and I didn’t want to tell anyone’s but mine and even then it felt strange to give my perspective. Thanks for reading it and commenting. Love you!

  13. Meredith, that was beautiful. I will never forget that. I remember the assembly we bad in school the week after and seeing everyone crying over losing such a great guy. He really was very nice, nicer than most “popular” kids would be. Thank you for sharing your beautiful yet very heartbreaking story. I’m glad you have found some peace knowing he is watching over those who loved him and he loved.

  14. Just sat and read your wonderful tribute……time has passed but the memory of that awful phone call the next morning will live with me forever.

  15. What a touching, loving, and devastating piece, Merideth. Hard to believe it’s been 30 years since we lost Brian (and Peter). I still think of Brian often – and tell people that he was probably the nicest, most genuine person I ever knew. He truly was one of a kind. I had forgotten the grim details of the accident and want you to know how sorry I am for the horror that you and everyone there that night went through. Thanks so much for sharing your story. Life is such a gift and it’s very easy to forget how fragile it all is. I’ll hug my kids extra hard tonight. Take care. Ben

    1. Ben, thanks so much for your comment. Brian was surely special. Life is certainly fragile. Unfortunately you know that all too well. Love to you…I really appreciated your words.

  16. Thank you Meredith for such an incredible story. Madison was changed for so many of us that night. We all remember where we were when we heard the news. Several wonderful families had their lives changed forever. Sending my love to all of you dear ones that were there that fateful night.

    1. Hi Noreen. So many intersecting families and friends changed that night. So many ripples spread through our quaint town. Lots of love to you and your family. xoxo

  17. Thank you for writing this very moving piece Meredith…very powerful…and as a former faculty member and Brian’s lacrosse coach…I truly remember all that was contained in Brian’s eternal smile…

  18. Thank you for sharing such an amazing story 30 years in the making. What an emotional roller coaster reading your verse and all of the comments that follow. Our entire town wept for Brian and Peter that night and also prayed for the recovery for the rest of you. Now, as adults we realize that the emotional scars are just as horrific as the physical ones. We couldn’t possibly have realized that back then. Our class and the classes around us lost far too many good souls for such a small town. Just a couple of years later we lost Dean after a brief but horrible snow squall spoiled a beautiful 70 degree March day. While Brent walked away unscathed on the outside, he’s never spoken of the incident to this day. All too often, there’s never a rhyme or reason. No one can ever accurately explain why someone lives and someone dies. All we can do is have faith. Faith that there is a better place and we all have a purpose in life. Regardless of the test or time on this earth; we are all tested. It wasn’t just Brian that no one could ever utter a bad word. It was all of you. Such an unlikely accident took and tested the souls of the most unlikely. No one could have ever imagined such a tragedy.
    Godspeed to you.

    1. Thank you, Joe, for your lovely post. I clearly remember when we lost Dean too. It was like one patch of ice on an otherwise fine road and he was just gone. And he was an EMT in training, I think too. So sad and tragic. I remember our crowd bonding with your crowd because he knew how you guys felt. In the end, we all became one very united Class of 1988. Your comment was really nice. Thanks for taking the time to share it.

  19. Wow Meredith that was wonderfully written. It is spot on. I go over that night in my head often. I have shared this tragedy with my kids and their friends since Ryan is driving now. I am so happy that the teenage driving laws are so strict in CT now to be prevent young inexperienced teens from accidents such as this. I have often thought about the seating that night. I was sitting on top of a wheel and must have looked uncomfortable because Brian asked me, too, if I wanted to sit where he was sitting and I said no I was ok. I don’t even know why I said no, I just did, I wonder about this often. Brian and Peter are missed every single day. They hold a special place in all of our hearts. And thank you Bill for sharing your experience and helping us that night. I never knew of your extreme involvement at the scene.

    1. I remember you and Brian talking about it too. We were sitting opposite each other by each wheel, me next to Brian, you next to Peter. But I also remember it being fun…just hanging out talking before we left. You and I had a lot of great times that summer with Kurt and Brian. There was no reason to think that night would be any different and change our lives so much. One thing it could never change is how much we loved Brian…and Kurt too. You are a wonder, Sue!

  20. To Meredith & Dia and all the wonderful, incredible kids who lived through the tragedy of September 2, 1985. I write for my beloved husband, Peter Dalton, Sr., who I lost to cancer 4 years ago at the young age of 68. Peter, Sr. came to a place of peace over losing “Pete”. He understood that he was reaching out that night to a wonderful group of Hand High kids that he was soon to be a part of. Peter, Jr. was transferring from Xavier for that first day of school, his junior year, and was eager to make new friends. I was lucky enough as a Madison teacher to have known him as a friend and neighbor to many of my students. Pete was an outstanding individual, charismatic, handsome, and a bright spot in everyone’s life. The difficult details of his death were too heart wrenching for my husband to recount.

    I was also best friends with Maureen Hughes and her family and knew Joanne Nee quite well through her affiliation with Dr. Gleich. Eventually, of course, our daughter’s God-Brother, Brian Hughes married Mary Beth Nee and our families were lovingly linked again together in a joyful way. Stephanie Nee became a Dalton neighbor for a while and little by little over the years, healing and mutual understanding of what everyone lost that night was unspoken but acknowledged with a smile, a nod or a hug.
    I will spend eternity next to my extraordinary husband, Peter Dalton and his beloved son, Pete. All my love goes out to all of you who have honored Pete & Brian’s legacy on this 30th Anniversary. My husband would be so proud and moved by your words.
    Lovingly written by Maureen Dalton.

    1. Maureen, Thank you for this beautiful note. I’m so sorry to hear about Mr. Dalton. Over the years since the accident I’ve gotten the chance to know of your family and learn more about Peter from his friends. They adore him and have reached out to me about how much they miss him and appreciated hearing about that night. I do remember Pete’s smile and just easy going, sweet personality that night. Very easy on the eyes too! He and Brian were happy to be hanging out and any friend of Brian’s and Kurt’s was surely a friend of mine. I enjoyed hearing about how your family connected with the Nee family in such a beautiful way. And rest assured, we all think of Peter and Brian often, miss them, and sometimes imagine what their lives might be like now. My one take away is that however many years they got, they were happy, nice, kind, good guys. Much love to you and John. And thank you for sending this and adding to the conversation about the boys who are so dearly missed still, 30 years later. xxoxox

  21. Meredith, love paragraph 12. I have always sort of cocooned Kurt in my thoughts. Never placed any blame on him. He and his family were great friends and neighbors. Brian had such fun with them and I know that their grief and hurt was worse in many ways than my own. I think of how hard it would have been on Brian if the roles were reversed. Sending them Love as I always do.

  22. I work with Monique and read this entire story. As a grandmother of nine, I will be copying this story and have them read this as they near driving age. Only three more years for my oldest. My heart goes out to you and all for your heartbreak. May it help to know others care. You write beautifully.

    1. Thanks, Rosemary. Monique has always been so sweet to me. Keep them all safe as best as you can while letting them live fully! xo

  23. I continue being drawn to this blog. I willingly open up those healing wounds that have left a scar forever. Remembering always. I think about how much “cheating death” has made us who we are. I will keep trying to live life to its fullest and care for those around me. I was so happy to see Pete memorialized at Xavier, Matt cooper sent that post which was great to see. It’s also so nice to hear the words of all who were affected. Love to all.
    K, S, L, M

  24. Wow Meredith! I don’t know why, but I was drawn to read this blog today even though you posted a while back. What a profound story and as always funny or serious your words take us on your journey. I felt like I could envision all of it and the raw emotions your share brought me to tears. I am glad you were in the seat that you were and hope that all that have carried on have found some kind of peace. This is a good reminder that we should all be more fearless, more curious and more open to experience life fully, just in case we end up in the wrong seat. Love those words. Thanks for sharing your very personal story. XOXO

  25. As so many have already commented-our town was forever changed that night. We remember where we were and what we were doing-the sound of the firehouse horn 11:38 is when I heard it from my home.
    This piece is beautiful. I remember it all too well, and the extreme sadness at the Dalton house the next day. I was 13 and will never forget it, so many lives touched, changed-forever just from knowing about it. I cannot imagine those of you who were there. I have shared the story with my own children. I see Peter’s name on the field at Xavier when I pick up my son. It is all around us always…when we see kids in the back of a pick up truck-how could we not be touched and remember.? All of you were prayed for for so many months and years following that horrible tragic night. Thank you for sharing this. Enjoy your “borrowed” time-God has a plan and that was yours. We can’t understand it-but it’s yours!

  26. Meredith, you write beautifully. Thank you for keeping their memories alive. I think our entire class was affected by that night. I too remember it very well and think about if often. I knew Peter and his family from the first year I moved to Madison, as his dad was one of my first soccer coaches. Brian was in my math class at Brown School and told me a joke about how Algebra got it’s name…all about a girl who had algae in her bra! It’s was a longer joke, but everytime anyone says Algebra, I think of Brian! So sorry for those in our class that lost their lives, but grateful to those that survived! Treasure that.

  27. Hi Meredith,
    just came across your web site and read your memory of that awful night.
    You have the gift of writing such heartfelt and sad memories of the accident that
    those beautiful young boys.
    The entire town was grieving the losses of the accident.
    Thanks for keeping their memory alive.

  28. Meredith – it’s one of those Saturday mornings that you wrote about in another blog and I happened upon this very moving and powerful post. Echoing what so many have said about your incredible ability to articulate experiences is such a talent; thank you. So sorry you, your friends – and particularly Brian and Peter – went through this, and thank you for turning something so tragic into continued life-learning. Truly, thank you!

    1. I’m so glad you found this blog. It’s perfect for Saturday mornings. And thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. Means a lot ot me. xo

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