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Stories of grief and love behind area's roadside memorials

They have become as familiar on America's roads as rumble strips.

The roadside memorials create somber landscapes along suburban highways and urban streets. Spontaneous displays dedicated to the memory of a loved one lost through accident or homicide, the memorials often feature stuffed animals, floral bouquets, solar lights, candles and crosses, and personal messages to mark the scene of a death.

The number of them in Western New York is impossible to determine. Nobody keeps track of them.

Some disappear after a matter of days. Others are maintained for years, sometimes by people who drive long distances.

John Zekas regularly drives 90 miles from Bradford, Pa., to Amherst to weed flowers planted at a roadside memorial in Amherst where 18-year-old Alexandria "Alix" Rice was killed six years ago by a drunken driver as she skateboarded home from her job at a pizzeria.

"Alix doesn't have a tombstone, so friends don't have a place to go to," said Zekas, who married Rice's mother after the accident. "Initially, everyone dropped things off – cards, crucifixes, rosary beads – you name it.  Flowering plants die, so you start cleaning up. I put a few in the ground. I've always used gardening as a release."

"People who experienced a sudden and tragic loss feel a spiritual connection to the location because that's where their loved one lost their life," said David Zabinski of Kolano Funeral Home, explaining why people create roadside memorials. "It's the best place to express their sense of sympathy, loss and sorrow. It's also lends a sense of community and togetherness, and there's comfort in that, too – similar to gathering at a funeral home."

Across America, about half of the states have passed laws to regulate roadside memorials and prevent them from impeding traffic, creating hazards or distracting drivers. Some states, like Florida and Delaware, ban them on state roads. Other states, like Pennsylvania, require families to apply for a state-provided sign.

"Roadside memorials are generally not approved on New York State roads because they can interfere with roadside maintenance, be an obstruction hazard to motorists, and prove dangerous to the loved-ones placing memorials or stopping to pay tribute," said Tiffany Portzer, a spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Transportation. "DOT works with local law enforcement and local leaders to notify loved ones before a tribute is removed and then to return any items to friends and family. DOT also stores removed items to give loved ones time to retrieve their belongings."

But the memorials are so pervasive, there's little evidence New York is aggressively removing them.

"It's a way for people to grieve," said Patrick Lucey, the Amherst highway superintendent said of the roadside tributes. "... If at some point, the memorial becomes too dilapidated we may remove it. At some point, we may have to regulate them, but I'm not there yet."

Here's the story behind a handful of roadside memorials in Erie County:

Frederick Garrasi memorial

On crisp autumn afternoons, Renee Garrasi likes to drive from her Angola home to Tim Hortons for two cups of hot apple cider to take to "The Fence."

The chain-link fence by the Lake Shore Volunteer Fire Co. in the Town of Hamburg – festooned with American flags, and patriotic ribbons, stars and crosses – stands as a memorial to late Evans Police Officer Frederick Garrasi, 24, who preferred his apple cider hot.

"I leave it there for him," said Garrasi. "I sit at the fence and talk. I feel a closeness there with him because that's where he passed."

Frederick Garrasi III was off duty and riding his Yamaha motorcycle on Lakeshore Road in May 2013 when police said a driver cut him off and sent the motorcycle into oncoming traffic at the intersection of Lakeshore and Rogers roads, near the fire station.

"We first put a cross up, but the winds are horrid, and material items do not last, so almost everything we place now is metal. We change it all the time," said Garrasi, who is often joined at the memorial by her husband, Frederick Garrasi II.

Every year on March 29, friends and relatives gather at the fence to reminisce on her son's birthday, Garrasi said. On May 3, the date of his death, the same group meets behind the fire hall and releases 24 red balloons and one white balloon for each year that passed since his death.

"During the year people just stop and put things on the fence," Garrasi said. "Someone left a police baton, a thin blue line bracelet, little white crosses. They come and visit. Freddie is more alive today than he ever was."

A roadside memorial for Erin Suszynski, 13, on Maple Road at Culpepper Road, where she was struck by a car while crossing the street in 2012. She died 11 days after the accident. This photo was taken Friday, May 19, 2017. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Erin Suszynski memorial

The mass of flowers placed by friends of 13-year-old Erin Suszynski on Maple Road in Amherst were "light and airy, just like my daughter," recalled Mary Suszynski, her mother.

"But they died quickly, and that would get depressing. I felt bad so I decided to place artificial flowers. It was more in the hope that she would recover and see it," Suszynski said.

Erin Suszynski

Erin and another girl were struck by a car June 9, 2012, while crossing Maple Road at Culpepper Road on their way home from the playground. Eleven days later, Erin died of injuries she sustained, and the makeshift garden became a memorial. There was a Barbie Doll, stuffed animals, candles and a 5-foot-tall wooden cross made by a volunteer firefighter from the nearby Main Transit Fire Department, where Erin's older brother and sister also volunteered as firefighters.

"Erin did not feel any pain," said Suszynski. "She was happy as she could be that last second. We surrounded her in the hospital as long as we could, and I was there when she took her last breath. That's solace for us."

Over the years, the wooden cross dry-rotted and its shellac began to peel. The engraved Winnie the Pooh quotation that topped the cross was nearly impossible to read. Suszynski's brother-in-law Gary Thomasulo crafted a new cross that was installed this weekend. Made from pressurized wood, it includes pieces from the original cross, which it replaced on private property three houses from the accident scene.

In October 2016, a signal crossing was installed at the site. Known as Erin's Crossing, the signal pole carries a sign reminding children to look both ways before crossing the street. Erin was crossing Maple when she was hit, said Suszynski.

Suszynski said she now finds comfort when she sees someone who looks like Erin.

"I just saw a girl on the news who looked exactly like Erin, and I froze," Suszynski said. "I constantly see kids the age Erin was when she died. To me, Erin will forever be 13."

Barry Moss memorial

Barry 'Bob' Moss lost his life three days before Christmas 2013. The popular handyman was killed by a sport utility vehicle in a hit-and-run accident late in the night as he walked his bicycle down the road.

Maria Wrafter, Moss' sister, never gave up hope that the driver of the SUV, Gabriele Ballowe, would be prosecuted and convicted. But in the meantime, Wrafter was determined to keep alive the memory of her 52-year-old brother.

So in June 2015 she planted a white birch tree –  just like the one Moss and his daughters would play by years ago – near the site of the accident. The tree is growing on the private property of a group home for developmentally disabled people at 8484 Erie Road, Angola. The tree and stone border were donated by two local nurseries.

Ballowe, 51, was eventually arrested in June 2016 on charges of vehicular manslaughter and leaving the scene of an incident. In December, she was sentenced to one year in prison.

"This is the first year I get to tend to it having some satisfaction," said Wrafter. "It made me feel like I was doing something to get justice for [my brother]. You kind of lose your mind a little bit. It was a long time waiting. Some of it was personal, for him. Some of it was part of the whole journey to try to get justice. Anything I could do was better than doing nothing."

Today the tree stands 30 feet tall, a testament to the almost daily watering duty undertaken by Wrafter and others during two of the driest summers on record.

"We'd fill empty milk jugs, a cooler, whatever we had in our recycling bin that would hold water," Rafter said.

Flowers are planted around the tree's base, as well as a plaque with Moss' photograph and the quote, "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

"When someone sees this, they will know my brother was loved," Wrafter said.

A memorial to Barry "Bob" Moss, who was killed in a hit-and-run on Dec. 22, 2013, on Erie Road in Angola, Wednesday, May 24, 2017. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Alexandria "Alex" Rice memorial

Tammy A. Schueler did not visit the section of Heim Road where her daughter was killed in July 2011 until days after the accident, on her way to Alix's funeral.

"I was totally blown away by what I saw – skateboards and flowers and teddy bears," she recalled. "It never occurred to me to go there before because it was too awful to think about."

Alexandria "Alix" Rice

Now, she occasionally visits.

"If I see a fresh chalk message I will stop," said Schueler, who lives in Amherst. "The community is the one that started the memorial in the first place and it needs to be maintained. I try and water. John [Zekas] planted all the flowers."

The driver of the vehicle that struck Rice, Dr. James Corasanti, was acquitted by jury of manslaughter, leaving the scene of an accident and evidence tampering, but convicted of misdemeanor driving while intoxicated and served eight months in jail.

Rice's death stirred a community of skateboarders to send condolences and tributes from around the country, including a wooden cross made of two skateboards that was sent by a West Coast skateboard company. The deteriorating cross was a centerpiece of the memorial until it fell apart, said Zekas, who is now estranged from Schueler.

Zekas visits the memorial every other week, combining the trip with a doctor's appointment or visit with family. Sometimes he makes the trip for the sole purpose of tending to the memorial.

"When the weeds and grass started growing with the flowers, and the site got too difficult to care for, I added the mulch," he said. "In winter, I'll add a poinsettia. I bring a pumpkin and cornstalks in fall. I just try and keep people's attention  on the crash site."

Zekas can't bring himself to say the word "memorial," but he remains committed to maintaining it as long as he can.

 

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