Fran?iois leads community charge

UB grad student helps fight for a lighted crosswalk after fatal accident in Amherst

The Spectrum

Wheat bread, ham and butter. Wheat bread, ham and butter.

Ariel Fran?\0xA4ois was making po'boy after po'boy for the silent 13-year-olds in her living room. It was the beginning and the end of her sister's birthday party. There were barely any decorations and no cookie cake in the fridge. There was no orange or grape soda or the mini muffins birthday girl Briana requested.

There was no time to prepare. Less than an hour before, a Jeep struck Briana and her friend, Erin Suszynski. Another driver had waved to the girls, encouraging them to cross Maple Road on their way back from a local park, just before they were hit.

Over the next few weeks, Fran?\0xA4ois watched her sister endure multiple surgeries, say goodbye to Erin, who had died from her wounds, and begin to live with emotional and physical pain in the aftermath of those few steps across an ordinary road in the suburbs. Fran?\0xA4ois became angry with the town, the drivers and even the girls. Now, over a year after the accident, Fran?\0xA4ois and the Suszynski family are fighting in Amherst Town Court for the installation of a lighted crosswalk in Erin's honor.

It was clear to Fran?\0xA4ois there would be no party that day. She was about to walk into Wegmans when her mother let out a heart-stopping shriek, a scream that said on its own everything was not all right. The women got back in the car and sped home. They didn't talk about what just happened.

Her mother drove off before Fran?\0xA4ois got inside and was surprised by a house full of eighth-graders under no supervision. Her father was supposed to be there. But he must have been the one she faintly heard crying on the other end of the phone.

"Briana got hit by a car," one of the children clued her in.

In shock, Fran?\0xA4ois went into the kitchen and started making po'boys. The children weren't hungry, but this was for her. Staying busy would keep her from losing it, she thought.

Until now, Fran?\0xA4ois, a second-year biology grad student, hasn't let herself think about her sister's accident on that hot June day last summer. Her energy was consumed by making sure her parents ate and got enough sleep. They were like "silly putty left in the sun too long," Fran?\0xA4ois said. It was every parent's nightmare turned into reality.

Briana was unconscious after hitting her head on the windshield and being thrown 500 feet. Erin was tangled under the car, though still responsive. There was hope at the hospital. Erin twitched when her feet were scratched and appeared to be recovering quickly from the bruises. When Briana awoke, Fran?\0xA4ois looked to Erin for further progression. But on June 20, 2012, 11 days after the accident, the aspiring dancer died suddenly.

On May 6, 2013, almost a year later, Fran?\0xA4ois felt hopeful as the families and friends gathered in Amherst Town Hall to discuss the possibilities of the construction. Despite testimonies from Erin's aunt and Briana, however, the board announced the matter was out of its jurisdiction. This time, Fran?\0xA4ois's hope was not lost, but rather turned into a fire of rage and despair that continually pushes her to protect future neighborhood children like Erin and Briana.

"I don't think I could ever lose my humanity like that," Fran?\0xA4ois said. "The part that really struck home was the fact that [the board members] apparently live so close to me. This is supposed to be the City of Good Neighbors. And they're supposed to be working for us."

As a resident of Culpepper Lane, the street the Suszynski family lives on, Amherst Supervisor Barry Weinstein told the room multiple times he feels for the victims and the families, according to Fran?\0xA4ois. He remembers how young, brown-eyed Erin would walk past the raspberry patches on his lawn and how he would sometimes offer the fruit to her and her friends, he said.

Installing a crosswalk might as well be an admittance of negligence, according to Town Board Member Stephen Sanders.

"I can't imagine what the Suszynskis are going through," Fran?\0xA4ois said. "[Mrs. Suszynski] had to put her baby in the ground. That's not supposed to happen. You're not supposed to put your kids in the ground. It's supposed to be the other way around."

For local children, the park at Maple East Elementary is the place to be. The schoolyard, though on busy, five-lane Maple Road, is surrounded by homes owned by young families and old couples. In just one hour last summer, Jerry Suszynski, Erin's father, counted 30 children crossing the street where his daughter was struck, he told The Buffalo News.

Fran?\0xA4ois remembers playing at the park with her childhood friends and going there with a boy she liked when she was a teenager. Now, she avoids the area completely and is haunted by images of her sister in a coma. For days, Fran?\0xA4ois didn't sport a single smile until mittens were put on Briana's hands so she couldn't scratch herself.

"I just remember thinking we would make fun of her so much," Fran?\0xA4ois said. "I kept touching her nose and she'd be half asleep and not know what's going on and she'd touch her nose. It was the only thing that could make me smile."

Many Amherst residents, especially those connected to Mill Middle School, where Erin and Briana were students, wanted to help the Suszynski family get the crosswalk installed. With several fundraisers over the past year, they raised over $85,000 and created Erin's Crossing, a foundation dedicated to "pursuing legislation for mandatory crosswalks at all playgrounds giving pedestrians the right of way, allowing for safe passage," according to its Facebook page. The foundation has also partnered with LightGuard Systems, Inc., an organization that specializes in lighted crosswalks.

The legal process involved is lengthy but not impossible. On May 16, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz wrote a letter to the Amherst Town Board outlining the necessary procedures and his assistance and attention. His office, however, is still waiting for the town to formally request a traffic study, a necessary beginning step.

No matter how long it takes, Fran?\0xA4ois is committed to the cause despite her busy schedule. This summer, she is studying for the MCAT and looking for a professional job. The accident has given her even more motivation to get involved in neurology.

"I look at [Briana] and think she is not supposed to be here," Fran?\0xA4ois said. "She technically was not supposed to make it at all. It was a very real possibility for our family ... You see her every day, and you're just like, that's really miraculous."

A year ago, Fran?\0xA4ois would never have considered herself a religious person. But now she thanks God for her sister's recovery even if life hasn't gone back to normal. Briana still sees a doctor, orthodontist and tutor as a result of the accident. An ordinary day is taxing and Briana is often exhausted by the evening, according to her sister.

"She cuddles up on the couch," Fran?\0xA4ois said. "If you try to talk to her about [the accident], she gets up and walks away. She's a completely different person now."

The once-social teenager goes out with her friends less frequently now. She experiences bouts of depression and often wakes up screaming and crying in the night. The girls' mother still attends grief counseling and their father uses long hours at work as a coping mechanism.

Still, Fran?\0xA4ois is holding her family together. The "crazy emotions" she thought she could package away a year ago are back. But she is thankful. Thankful for her sister's recovery and for the motivation she and the community have to get the crosswalk created.

Fran?\0xA4ois often sees drivers do the same actions that led to the accident. The crosswalk isn't just wanted - it's needed, she said. For the sister who Fran?\0xA4ois said is everything she wishes to be and more, Fran?\0xA4ois is devoted to doing whatever it takes to get the crosswalk installed.