We don’t have a word to adequately describe what happened to Dan and Lynn Wagner 10 years ago. “Tragedy” doesn’t quite get at the dimension of it; “nightmare” is entirely too cheap.
For many parents – or, frankly, most anyone with loved ones in their lives – it is literally unimaginable.
On Sept. 22, 2001 – in the midst of the long dark shadow cast by the events of 9/11 – the Wagners lost both of their children in a flash. Returning home from an all-day Christian-themed Festival at Main Beach, the Wagner family’s van was struck by an intoxicated driver. Killed on the spot were Harbor High students Amanda “Mandie” Wagner, 16, and her 14-year-old sister Carrie, bright, active girls, pretty – both were freckled and possessed of the same strawberry-blond hair – and deeply devout in their faith.
The circumstances of the Wagner sisters’ deaths make a mockery of the idea that anyone is safe from the cruelties of fate. They were coming back from an exhilarating celebration of their faith, seat-belted into a large van, their mom and dad in the front seat, cruising at a normal speed through a quiet residential neighborhood in the Seabright area. It was as mundane a setting as a sunny Tuesday morning in New York City 11 days earlier.
Even with the horrifying events playing out on the national stage, the accident that killed Mandie and Carrie tore a hole in this community’s sense of itself. For those who knew the Wagner family, it was a knee-buckling personal loss. But even for many of those who did not, news of the accident struck a deep spiritual vulnerability already bruised by the 9/11 incident.
But, though the Wagners story is one of sorrow, it is also one of hope and resilience.
Dan and Lynn live today in the same house where they raised their daughters. A beautiful painting of the girls hangs in the hallway by the front door, another drawing of them is back in Mandie’s bedroom.
What happened to Dan and Lynn would destroy a lot of people. But they made a decision long ago not to run from their story, but to live as examples of God’s grace and to redirect the love they would have given to their children to each other, their church and their community.
And then, in the midst of their pain, they reached out and made true to their Christian ethics, committing a remarkable act of forgiveness.
Lynn told me that ever since she could remember, she wanted to be a mother. But her mothering impulse did not die with her daughters. Whether she’s acting as surrogate to the kids in her neighborhood, counseling other couples who’ve lost children, telling her story at the Toastmasters public-speaking club, or, most significantly, regularly visiting women in the county jail to teach them about God, she has made her deepest pain into an instrument that can serve others.
Dan has made his own journey through a kind of emotional darkness that most folks pray every day remains for themselves only a theoretical concept. He said that he struggled for a long time with anger at God for taking his children away, but worked to get to a place where anger became acceptance. His faith, he said, is stronger than ever.
For several years, the Wagners would leave town on the anniversary of the accident, but now they don’t feel that need so often. Time has begun its proverbial healing.
“I’m glad we’re able to put some distance between us and the accident,” said Lynn with obvious relief.
“We have a great life,” said Dan. “We have a lot to look forward to.”
It was while dealing with their crushing loss that the Wagners began writing letters to Lisa Tegenkamp, the woman driving the car that killed their girls. Lisa was serving a seven-year sentence in Valley State Prison for Women for gross vehicular manslaughter. While in prison, she had her own conversion experience, and began writing the Wagners in the same spirit of reconciliation.
In 2008, Lisa was released from prison and she met the Wagners face to face for the first time. It was such an emotional experience, said Dan, that he couldn’t stop crying. Lisa said that nothing at the time was more important in her life than confronting what she had done.
“I had to walk through it and not around it,” she said. “I wanted them to know what was in my heart.”
Since then, Lynn and Lisa have appeared together to speak in public about the accident and about their shared faith in God.
Upon her release, Lisa, 45, returned home to Santa Cruz, got a good job and recently bought a car. She has been part of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous for years, and devotes herself to helping those struggling with addiction.
“I feel like my life is a living amends,” she said.
All the while, the Wagners have been at the center of their community’s efforts to make sense of the accident. They have grown into deeper relationships with friends and acquaintances. Strangers still reach out to them in sympathy. All the while, for those who know them, they serve as living touchstones of strength, grace and emotional authenticity.
Though their daughters’ lives were lost, they’ve seen other lives changed, even saved, in the 10 years since 9/22. And yet, none of the survivors of that horrible accident – Dan, Lynn or Lisa – takes any sort of credit for the courage and the will they’ve shown. Whatever strength they have, they say, is on loan from God.
It’s a short walk from the Wagners’ home to Holy Cross Cemetery where Mandie and Carrie are buried, next to two empty plots where – hopefully, once 9/11 and 9/22 have both receded decades into the past – Dan and Lynn will make their eternal rest and the Wagners will become reunited as a family, at last.
Perhaps the most simple, eloquent and heartbreaking perspective of those dark times a decade ago comes from 16-year-old Mandie Wagner, just days before her own death. After the accident, her dad found in her e-mail box a short poem written by Mandie trying to make sense of 9/11. It ends with this:
“I always felt safe, like we were untouchable, unbreakable.”