Fifteen years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a Lisbon Falls couple share their experience as New Yorkers at ground zero.

She thought it was a horrific accident.

Then the second plane hit.

“People were running on the streets, trying to get away. There was a sense of panic,” said Wagner, who was in the middle of planning a fundraising cruise when terrorists attacked. “We still had electricity and internet, so we stayed.”

The married mother of two would do more than stay. She would help.

For days inside the “frozen zone,” in the middle of the decimated Manhattan neighborhood clogged by ash and debris, Wagner helped run one of the few initial sites of relief for emergency workers, a place where they could get a meal, a change of clothes, a spot to sit down, a quiet corner to cry or pray. With her husband, co-workers and waves of volunteers, she turned an office building and its chapel into a refuge. 

“There was this overwhelming feeling that I needed to stay, that God needed me there, that this was something — not divinely ordained because that’s too big. But it was,” Wagner said. “This just came together in such a way it felt like God had really called us to do this witness. God had really intended for us to be there to help the first responders.”


Fifteen years later, Wagner lives in Maine with her husband, the Rev. Beau Wagner, rector at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Lisbon Falls, but she still carries scars from that time. She’s had nightmares. She’s battled breast cancer — determined to be the result of her time in the toxic stew that was ground zero — and she’s currently fighting a blood and bone marrow disorder that may also be related.

But she doesn’t regret that decision to stay.

“Nobody will take us down on our soil,” she said. “We have a resilient spirit, faith in God and belief in our destiny.”

The ground rumbled

On Sept. 11, 2001, Wagner, her husband and their two boys — then 14 and 4 —  lived in a Manhattan apartment a few miles from their jobs.

That morning, Wagner went to work first. She was communications director for the Seamen’s Church Institute, an Episcopal Church-affiliated nonprofit that cares for the personal, professional and spiritual needs of mariners. She’d started there just six months earlier. 


Their oldest son, a freshman in high school, went to class. Beau Wagner, executive director of the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation, walked their younger son to day care and planned to go on to work.

On the way, he saw a plane flying low. Too low.

“I actually remember thinking it was in trouble, that it was trying to make Newark Airport. I was concerned it might crash in the harbor,” he said. “A few minutes later the sirens started and the sirens didn’t stop.”

Beau Wagner dropped his son off at day care and continued on to his office. He saw fire and thought a single disturbed pilot had committed suicide by flying into a building. Then a woman on a cellphone called out to everyone on the sidewalk, “They just hit the Pentagon!”

“That’s when I realized it was something more,” he said.

Beau Wagner sent his workers home and told them to get out of Manhattan while they could. He retrieved his younger son and headed home, the flames of the twin towers bright in the distance. 


“My kid was being 4 years old and was demanding to see the fire. It was far enough away, so I gave him a quick, brief look at it and then we turned away,” he said. “As I was turning away, the ground underneath me rumbled and I turned back and the tower came down.”

Beau Wagner and his son were a mile or so from ground zero. Deb Wagner was 850 yards away.

She’d been told she could go home, but she didn’t want to. No one in her office did. They had electricity, internet service, phone service, working toilets and a safe space in the midst of chaos. Rather than shut down the building, they opened their doors.

“People, as they were running by, they saw our door open, came in, used the phones, went to the chapel,” she said. “We tried to comfort them.”

Institute employees met in the chapel, where they prayed and discussed what more they could do. They talked about the fully stocked cafeteria on the second floor.

First responders would need food and water. And they had it.


In her office, Deb Wagner printed fliers with directions to the institute. Employees took them and fanned out across ground zero, trudging through ankle-deep ash and debris to rescue command centers.

But Beau Wagner wanted his family together. The world felt like it was falling apart and he wanted his wife to come home.

Over the phone they got into what he called a “tremendous, bang-up argument.”

“I felt like we were called to be doing this,” she said. “We needed to be doing this.”

“And I was in a major father, protector role sort of thing,” he said.

They got past it. She stayed.


In the first hours, it became clear that the institute was one of very few places that could help inside the “frozen zone” — the area around ground zero that had been locked down and surrounded by checkpoints and police.

“No one knew how long we would be open, what was going to happen. There were F-15 fighters going over the area. There were people jumping off the (World Trade Center) buildings. There were people screaming and crying. It was a real intense situation,” Deb Wagner said.

Institute employees began returning from ground zero with requests from first responders. They could use food and water, yes, but what they really wanted was the energy drink Red Bull. 

Deb Wagner spent hours on the phone trying to find both supplies and ways to get them in from the outside world. Their cafeteria stock would last only so long, and if first responders wanted Red Bull, Red Bull they would get.

Seamen’s Church Institute stayed open through the night as an emergency shelter for a few families who couldn’t leave the island. Deb Wagner finally went home that evening.

“I don’t think that, at least in our lifetime, that it’ll ever happen that way again, that we’ll be so shocked, so unnerved,” she said. “It was surreal. It was just heartbreaking. And most of us couldn’t believe it as the day wore on.”


She returned before dawn for Sept. 12.

Grills, generators, flashlights

Beau Wagner stayed home with their younger son; Deb Wagner and her 14-year-old made their way to her office well before dawn, talking their way through checkpoints with the flier she’d made in her office and bearing a large bag of bagels donated to the institute’s relief effort by the neighborhood’s favorite bagel shop.

In the midst of the devastation, she wore a skirt and suit jacket.

“I just dressed up because I wanted them to know someone was dressing up for them. You know, that we were honored to be there for these first responders, especially with what happened to most of the firefighters that had gone into (the towers),” she said. “When we had heard that they had died, there was just an overwhelming sense of wanting to honor them.”

At the office she found electricity had been lost during the night, which meant they could no longer cook. And worse, food supplies were dwindling.


But both problems had solutions. Priests, one of the few groups of people who could get through the barricades and into the frozen zone, would carry in the supplies that Deb Wagner helped coordinate. Neighbors brought food from their refrigerators and the local Fulton Fish Market donated salmon steaks and crab legs. Someone brought out the grills that the institute kept for an annual mariner barbecue, placing them in the courtyard where workers could temporarily escape views of the devastation.

When the group needed cash for immediate supplies, staff members and volunteers thrust their ATM cards and PIN numbers at the drivers heading to a grocery store 20 blocks away.

By that evening, the institute was feeding 600 emergency workers at each meal and sending out food to ground zero crews.

Like the day before, Deb Wagner stayed until evening, her 16-hour day spent  coordinating volunteers, supplies and relief efforts with the General Theological Seminary in New York. First responders needed work gloves, wanted hamburgers. She helped make it happen.

The Wagners’ older son developed an asthma attack from the ash-filled air and stayed home the next day. Beau Wagner joined his wife in the frozen zone.

“It was better to be doing something than thinking about it,” he said.


As the days went on, restaurants, New York City chefs, churches and other groups donated meals.

Con Edison gave the group a couple of generators, which ran a line of coffee pots, a small freezer and a power strip for charging cellphones.

Donors sent over boxes of clean clothes, toiletries, hard hats and flashlights. Podiatrists and chiropractors set up shop in empty Seamen’s Church Institute classrooms, giving first responders foot massages and helping with backs that ached from hours of digging through rubble. Grief counselors — volunteers and clergy first, professional counselors later — worked through the building 24 hours a day.

What started as a makeshift relief effort turned into something more solid.

“(Officials) actually began sending people to us. We became a known resource,” Beau Wagner said.

He spent his time in the kitchen, ferrying back requests from ground zero, running for supplies — anything his wife needed.


“Every so many hours or so I’d walk up to her and basically go, ‘OK, this is what I’ve accomplished. What do you need?’ And she’d send me off on another project and I’d beat that one into shape,” he said.

At one point he spotted her crouched outside on her cellphone, trying to get reception. She’d taken off her face mask because it made talking on the phone impossible and she had to call about food for emergency workers. Dust swirled around her.

While they helped create a place of peace for emergency workers, there was little respite for the Wagners, who now both lived and worked in a war zone. At home, silent ambulances passed by their apartment, carrying the remains of victims killed in the attacks. Thousands of missing person posters covered the neighborhood, each one with a photo, each one begging for help finding a father, mother, child, sibling.

And there were the traffic cones.

“As you walk through the streets you could see the little traffic cones,” Beau Wagner said. He paused for a moment, choked up. “Traffic cones were marking body parts.”



After several days, the institute’s relief effort moved to St. Paul’s Chapel, the church building that somehow remained standing despite its location directly in front of the World Trade Center. Although volunteers continued with the effort, officials took on more of the responsibility.

Slowly, as weeks and months passed, some things returned to normal — kids went back to school, adults went back to work, checkpoints disappeared. But there were scars. 

“I ran this little office and I was sitting around with one of our employees and we hear a commotion. This was like two, three weeks later. Somebody in the apartment building across the street had decided to walk out her window,” Beau Wagner said. “That happened a lot in the first couple of months. People just couldn’t — the loss or shock or whatever. A lot of people were walking out their windows or otherwise committing suicide in Manhattan. The reverberations were long and deep.”

Sept. 11 reverberated for the Wagner family, too. The couple’s oldest son doesn’t like talking about the terrorist attacks. Both Beau and Deb have had nightmares.

She developed breast cancer in 2009, and it was officially determined to be due to the environment at ground zero. She’s been in remission for six years, but recently had to undergo a bone marrow transplant to deal with myelofibrosis, a form of cancer, that may also be linked to that time.

But not all of the after-effects were negative. Beau Wagner first felt called to the ministry as a boy, but “I allowed myself to get distracted.” Sept. 11 wiped away those distractions.


“This clearly gave me a sense of the importance of church, not just for the hereafter but for the here-and-now as well,” he said. “That led me to examine what was important and what wasn’t important.”

A few years later he attended seminary. In 2007, the family moved to Maine, where he became rector of  St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church.

Fifteen years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some of the Wagners’ memories are still vivid, like the day a volunteer showed up without going through the vetting and organization process and wouldn’t leave without having helped. OK, Deb Wagner told him. We need hot dogs. Come back with some and you can stay.  

He returned an hour later, arms filled with bags of hot dogs. She never asked where he’d gotten them. She decided she didn’t want to know.

“People were compelled to help. You didn’t need to tell them what to do more than once. They were just so motivated,” she said.

Other memories of those days are muddy, lost to time and the blur of constant work. How many days in a row were they at the site? When did the frozen zone shrink enough that they could reach the institute without going through checkpoints?


“It’s all scrambled in my brain,” Beau Wagner said.

Deb Wagner keeps two thick scrapbooks from that time. They are filled with items from those days, including her face mask, one of the fliers she printed with directions to their building, the credentials her husband created on his office computer and printed out so volunteers could cross the checkpoints, a thank-you note from the bishop.   

Nearly one whole album is taken up with photos: her outside on the phone with her mask down around her neck, the Episcopal bishop pumping his fists in triumph when he first caught sight of the untouched St. Paul’s Chapel, a torn book page titled “It’s time to talk” half buried in ash, a police car with its windows blown out, rubble, dust, flags. 

“It was just a privilege to be part of that, to honor God that way,” Deb Wagner said. “It was a perfect convergence of faith, entrepreneurship, resilience and being able to be right on the spot, right on that spot, and do what needed to be done.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: