One of the most powerful artifacts from September 11 is a voice message left from Brian Sweeney, a passenger on the hijacked United Airlines Flight 175, which crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center just after 9 a.m., 17 years ago this morning.
The voice message — left to Brian’s wife, Julie Sweeney Roth — has been replayed on social media and on network television every year on the anniversary of the attacks. The National September 11 Memorial & Museum even dedicated an installation around the recording so visitors could listen to it using a telephone.
But for Julie, the message remains a lasting gift from the man she loved.
“I was lucky Brian called and spoke to me on that message,” Julie, 46, told PEOPLE as the country mourned the anniversary of the attacks last year. “He told me what he believed and I grasped onto that with all I had, and I’ve embraced life — I am living it as I know he would want me to do.”
One of the most striking reasons why Brian’s message is so remarkable is his calm demeanor throughout the call, which was made about three minutes before hijackers crashed the aircraft into the South Tower.
“I’m on an airplane that’s been hijacked,” Brian said in the message. “If things don’t go well, and it’s not looking good, I just want you to know I absolutely love you, I want you to do good, go have good times—same to my parents and everybody — and I just totally love you, and I’ll see you when you get there. Bye, babe. I hope I call you.”
Despite the fear he must have felt, Brian found it in himself to remain hopeful in his message. Julie says he wouldn’t have made the call unless he knew the flight was “doomed.”
“The priority to him in those moments were to let his loved ones know that he loved us and that it was okay to move forward and do what we needed to do,” Julie, who now lives in New Jersey, says. “Though he believed he would see us again, he wanted us to know it was all going to be okay no matter how it turned out.”
Julie and Brian first met in late 1998, at a bar in Philly that neither had been to prior to that night. The place was known as a “suit bar,” Julie says, since it was a hangout for businessmen after work. But Brian walked in with what Julie would come to know as the rugged “Sweeney Uniform” — jeans, a denim button-down shirt tucked in nicely, a baseball cap and hiking boots.
“He stood out, he just stood out,” she recalls. “I looked at my girlfriend and I told her that’s the kind of guy I would marry.”
The freewheeling Brian, from Barnstable, Massachusetts, had served as a pilot in the Persian Gulf War and was an instructor for the Navy.
“He was like Tom Cruise but with a Goose personality — he had the confidence of Tom Cruise but he had this personality that you just wanted to hug him and love him,” Julie remembers. “He was just that kind of guy.”
At the time of the attacks, he was working for a Defense Department contractor, Brandes Associates.
Julie made the decision to make Brian’s intimate voice message public in January 2002, in the hopes that it might bring comfort to others who had relatives on the flight. Almost 3,000 people perished during the attacks on September 11, orchestrated in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania.
“There are still times when I cry and I listen to his message,” she says. “It’s still a part of me and there’s probably still a lot of healing I have to do.”
Julie has since remarried, and she and her husband now have two children together. For nearly a decade, she has also volunteered at the 9/11 Tribute Museum, a family-run center that highlights the stories of victims and survivors of the attacks. She credits the museum, and the network of people she has met through it, with helping her grieve.
“Moving forward does not mean you have forgotten your past. I don’t use the word closure, I don’t believe in it, people throw it out there all the time. You don’t ever close the door to something like this,” Julie says. “It’s one day at a time. That’s all this life is, one second at a time.”