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FROM LOSS, A FIGHT FOR SAFETY

It has been six years since Rebecca Czerwinski lost her beautiful dark-eyed 23-year-old daughter, Robyn, in a horse-riding accident.

Yet getting through the holidays continues to be hard -- on "birthdays, anniversaries, and in quiet hours alone," Mrs. Czerwinski admits, adding, "I still cry and cry."

Because a child's death is forever, Mrs. Czerwinski, 48, of the Town of Tonawanda, has not given up on her fight for stricter regulation of public riding stables.

"I can only pray now that somehow I can convey my pain to the New York State senators," says the medical secretary, who also is mother to a son. "No one should be allowed to suffer like this."

Mrs. Czerwinski has been tirelessly campaigning -- with the help of Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore -- to help pass a bill that would establish safety guidelines for horseback-riding operations that are open to the public.

The proposed law would, for instance, make operators provide protective helmets to beginning riders, and maintain personal-injury liability insurance coverage. They also would have to post the relative degree of difficulty and approximate length of each trail.

"I was incredulous to learn that there was no state law that governed this activity for the general public," Schimminger says of his bill. Mrs. Czerwinski is concerned because, she says, the bill is "currently stuck in a Senate committee."

To achieve her goal, to make sure that Robyn doesn't become another faceless, nameless number on the list of this country's horse-riding casualties, she shares her grief, which, "like a video camera, over and over, replays everything."

She remembers in frame-by-frame detail that humid early May morning in '89 when her daughter, a University at Buffalo student, decided to get in some horseback riding in Holland with her best friend, Deanna Evans, and co-workers before going to her job at Arby's.

"I stood at her bedroom door for about a minute, just watching my daughter brush her shiny long, brown hair, rushing to get ready."

She asked her daughter: "Rob, honey, you have to be at work at 4 today. Why are you going riding?" The young woman's answer: "Mom, don't worry so."

Her daughter was a sensible young woman who had won the Roy G. Freeman Award, a Kenmore West High School scholastic honor, been on the "It's Academic" team, and planned on becoming a doctor.

"For some unexplained reason, I watched until Deanna's car was totally out of sight," Mrs. Czerwinski recalls. "I was watching my daughter really alive for the last time."

A little after 1 in the afternoon, the phone rang. Mrs. Czerwinski knows the exact time because she still has the phone bill for the collect call.

"I remember -- always, always remember -- the phone ringing," she says. "It goes off in my head constantly when I have too much time to think."

On the phone, Robyn's hysterical friend Deanna could only blurt out, "Please, Mrs. C., help!"

Robyn had been thrown by her horse, hurled 55 mph through the air and into a boulder, shattering her skull.

After scribbling directions to a hospital near Springville, Mrs. Czerwinski grabbed her purse. In the rush, the purse caught on a gate, its contents spilling out.

By then it was raining hard.

"My husband, Tom, was driving about 80 mph. I prayed for a policeman to stop us and help us find where we had to go."

Mercy Flight took her daughter to the Erie County Medical Center. "Robyn was lying on a table, completely surrounded by people in white," her mother relates. "Never in our lifetime will we forget the blood flowing from her ears, her mouth and even her eyes. In all my life I never had to muster up as much courage as I had to at that moment."

On life-support systems, her daughter was brain-dead, "but it took eight days of red tape to declare her such," Mrs. Czerwinski says.

However, she was grateful for those days, to say goodbye to her daughter. At first she had denied what the neurologists told her, trying to convince herself that "Robyn would be out of it soon."

On Memorial Day she arranged for a burial plot and funeral plans.

"One collect phone call and it was like my life ended," Mrs. Czerwinski says. "No other parent should ever have to suffer as we have."

Working for passage of the horse-riding bill, she says, is what she can do for her daughter now.

"Robyn would have done the same."

Gov. Pataki called Mrs. Czerwinski two weeks ago and promised that he will push for horse-riding operation reform in the Senate. The governor told her that his children ride horses, too.

Now that we're getting into the riding season again, helmets make good horse sense.

On another brighter note, the medical secretary says that her daughter has a namesake. Robyn's friend Deanna Evans married, had a baby girl, and gave her "Robyn" as a middle name.

"That made me feel wonderful," Mrs. Czerwinski says, "absolutely wonderful."

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