NORTH WILDWOOD - More than 17 years have passed since Delaware State Trooper Sandra Wagner died, but the memory of that day has not faded for her stepmother, Betty Wagner.
"It doesn't get any better. It never gets any better, but it does get a little easier," Wagner said. "You always have that hole in your heart. You always carry that person with you."
Sandra Wagner, 28, was working as a state trooper looking for speeders when her car and a tractor-trailer collided on a highway. It was only her third day working solo.
"She realized that the best way for her to be able to help people was by going into law enforcement," Betty Wagner recalled. "It was the happiest that she'd ever been."
Her death brought the Wagner family to North Wildwood for the first Mid-Atlantic Law Enforcement Survivors gathering in 2000.
Now, the family comes here every year to remember and share their experience with others who have lost loved ones in the line of duty.
The event started when businessman Jack Keenan approached former police Chief Gary Sloan with the idea of holding a weekend fundraiser for the family of a slain Philadelphia police officer. It has grown into a tribute to both fallen police and firefighters from the East Coast and across the country.
This year, families of six deceased police or firefighters will be honored, including a family of a Utah highway patrol officer.
"A lot of departments have services for the officers, but the families are sometimes forgotten," said retired North Wildwood police Capt. George Greenland.
Today, the Mid-Atlantic Police & Fire Survivors Weekend is a chance for those families to be honored while remembering their loved ones.
According to the organization's history, "Despite numerous changes over the years, the one thing that has remained constant is our decision to wait to honor a responder until it is requested by a survivor."
Greenland said the decision to participate is left to families because many are not immediately ready to take part.
Those who do come have the chance to meet other families in similar situations.
North Wildwood Police Chief Matthew Gallagher said the weekend, which includes everything from a picnic at the Cape May County Park & Zoo to a solemn Saturday night vigil, is a retreat in many ways.
"The whole purpose is to honor the survivors and their families," he said.
Wagner has attended each year since it began and plans to be here this weekend as well.
"It meant that somebody cared," she said of the reception she and other survivors received the first time she came.
That year, many locals placed blue lights on their porches in remembrance.
"You see these names (of those killed), and each name has a family behind it," Wagner said.
She talks to the families of the recently deceased and lets them know she shares in their suffering.
"You let them know they will survive," Wagner said.
Since 2000, she has gotten to know some of the families and likened her annual visit to a reunion of sorts, and she credited the city's Police Department and the community with supporting them all.
"There's no way me as a survivor can say thank you enough for doing this," she said.
Contact Trudi Gilfillian:
If you go
The Mid-Atlantic Police & Fire Survivors Weekend will take place in North Wildwood starting Friday. There are several events, many open to the public, including Friday's 5 p.m. delivery of the ceremonial wreath by the Philadelphia Police Dragon Boat Team at the North Wildwood Municipal Boat Ramp, Fifth and New York avenues. On Saturday, the schedule includes a demonstration from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. by the Philadelphia Police Dept Motorcycle Drill Team at Second and Surf avenues, a 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. display and demonstration of police and fire equipment and personnel at Secind and Surf avenues and a 7 p.m. vigil at the Municipal Amphitheater including a Solemn Procession & Wreath Laying Ceremony.