“Big, brown and red
The playground at Maple East Elementary School
Is where I learned how to play on the monkey bars
50 times back, 50 times forth, getting blisters the size of my hands.”
At age 13, Erin Suszynski still loved that playground. Getting there required walking past two houses and crossing five lanes of traffic on Maple Road in Amherst. But Erin had done it countless times before.
Her parents, Jerry and Mary, walked to the playground on Tuesday and stood in its shadow for the first time since tragedy struck on June 9.
Jerry Suszynski gestured. This is where the old playground used to be, he said. This is where he’d hide, then leap out growling, when Erin was years younger. Then he walked beneath the gleaming, $125,000 playset, installed five years ago to replace the old wooden one.
When Erin’s dad came with her to the playground or when they came home, they would hold hands crossing the five lanes of traffic on Maple Road. By the time Erin was 13, she thought it was silly, but when he reached for her hand, she always took it.
This time, Jerry Suszynski was silent on the walk home with his wife and their dog, lost in memories as tears streaked his face.
Erin was trying to cross Maple Road with two friends when she and classmate Briana Francois were struck by a Jeep. Erin was hit first, suffering lower brain stem and pelvic injuries from the impact.
She lingered at Women & Children’s Hospital for 11 days before her parents took her off a ventilator and said goodbye. In her memory, two fundraisers are being held this weekend to support Erin’s Crossings, a charity created to pay for the installation of crosswalks and special signage for every playground that needs them.
In the long run, her parents said, they’d like to see legislation passed to require crosswalks at all playgrounds.
“We’ve been trying to make something good out of this, while trying to grieve,” Mary Suszynski said.
“My dad and I would play until it got dark.
He would run around making tiger noises while I hide.
Sometimes I felt the swings would call me over.
While he pushed me I would yell, Wee!!! Higher! Stop! I’m scared!!”
Friendly and sweet, Erin was a champion of the underdog, her family said. She was a dancer, 5-foot-6 and “all leg,” her mother said. She took four different dance classes and left heel marks on the kitchen walls from where she practiced her splits. Her family chuckled over her grace on the dance floor compared with her athletic awkwardness.
“She could dance fluently,” said her 21-year-old brother, Tom, smiling. “But watching her run was like watching a train wreck.”
Erin had graduated from Mill Middle School the day before her last playground visit. A friend of Erin’s had come over to spend the night that Friday. The next morning, before Jerry Suszynski left for a job in Hamburg, he found Erin asleep on the couch and called to her. She briefly picked her head off the couch with hair in her eyes.
“I didn’t even see her face that day,” he said.
“I told her I’d be back by 1.”
He took longer than that. Eventually, he, Mary and their daughter, Melissa, 18, wound up helping another family member with moving chores in the early evening.
A little after 7 p.m., Erin called her dad and asked if she could go to the playground with some friends.
“I said, ‘I really don’t want you to go,’ ” he said.
But she pleaded. Jerry looked at his wife. She shrugged. He shrugged. Erin had crossed Maple Road on her own many times before.
The “no” became a “yes.”
“She said, ‘Thank you, Daddy. I love you.’ And that’s the last thing I heard.”
“Minutes turned into hours, hours into a day, days turn into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years.
I had grown out of playing Tiger and playing on the swings.
The workers had torn down the playground.
They build a new colorful creation.”
Ten or 20 minutes later, Mary Suszynski and her daughter Melissa, 18, were driving home from a relative’s house in Lancaster with Jerry following in his car. Then Melissa – a volunteer firefighter like her brother – heard an alert over the scanner. Pedestrians hit on Maple Road.
No one was home. Tom, the son, was out in Holland. Neighbors were initially unreachable.
“I put my pedal to the floor,” Mary Suszynski said.
The ambulance had left by the time the family arrived. Erin’s hair clip and a flip-flop remained in the roadway.
It turns out several kids had made it across the street. A police officer sitting at the corner had just gotten out of his cruiser to reprimand the kids for not being more careful.
By that time, Erin, Briana, and Sydney Siembida, 14, had made it into the middle turn lane, all holding hands. A car in the lane directly in front of them stopped in the roadway and waved them on just as another car began passing in the second eastbound lane. Sydney barely saw the car in time.
“Wait!” she called.
But it was too late. Erin and Briana stepped forward and were both struck, a few feet from the sidewalk. Briana suffered injuries to her jaw and knee, as well as a concussion. But she is on a path to recovery, Mary Suszynski said.
Erin never woke up. Jerry Suszynski recalled his last conversation with his daughter.
“If I’d just stuck with ‘no,’ this wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
Her parents ultimately decided to donate her long hair and her organs. Then they let her go.
Mary Suszynski, a cancer survivor, said the “ifs” stack up like a maddening and unending list in a tragedy with no real villains. So she looks forward – to Erin’s legacy.
“As a family, we couldn’t stand to see another child hurt like this again,” she said.
“Erin’s Crossings” was created to raise money for playground crosswalks in New York State. Eventually, the parents want Erin’s Crossings to become a full-fledged foundation that can lobby governments and raise money for the purchase of crosswalks and signs that light up at non-signaled locations when in use near playgrounds.
One such system, LightGuard, would cost about $20,000 to install on Maple Road, said Sher Paz, the company’s national sales manager. And that would require cooperation and approval from Erie County, since Maple is a county road.
There are restrictions on where and how crosswalks can be located, but the Suszynskis say it’s obvious that a crosswalk is necessary between the playground of Maple East Elementary and the multitude of single-family homes across the street. The next nearest crosswalk is nearly two-tenths of a mile away at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital. No child is going to walk four-tenths of a mile out and back to get home when they can skip directly across the street, despite the danger.
Ideally, the weekend fundraisers will help raise the money needed to purchase several crosswalk systems for future installation, said Rob Lederman, a neighbor and radio personality with 97 Rock, who is helping with fundraising.
• At 10 p.m. Saturday at Northtown Center, the Medaille Mavericks hockey team faces Penn State Behrend. The event was organized by Erin’s brother, Tom, a member of the Medaille hockey club. Tickets are $3 for adults, $1 for students. Medaille students are free. Bracelets and 50/50 raffle will be available for sale.
• From noon to 4 p.m. Sunday at Samuel’s Grande Manor, 8750 Main St., an Erin’s Crossings benefit will be held, with food and soft drinks provided, cash bar, raffles, a silent auction and a live auction for everything from signed jerseys, a getaway weekend in Toronto and that will include a meeting with late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien. Tickets are $20.
Anyone interested in donating can make a check payable to “Erin’s Crossings” and deposit it at any M&T Bank branch.
With Erin gone, Mary Suszynski said their home feels empty, with their oldest son now 21 and Melissa away at Brockport College. Before Erin’s death, Mary had been taking night classes to eventually gain a college degree in nursing. But after so many sorrow-filled days and nights at Children’s Hospital, she’s put those plans on hold.
Jerry Suszynski, meanwhile, takes a different route to work each day. He won’t drive out to Maple Road anymore or face the playground. On the few occasions he does walk that way, he said, “I still pretend I’m holding her hand.”
“It will never be the same.
All I can do now is picture a little girl playing with her father.”
– Erin Suszynski, Nov. 16, 2011