Tragedy on the Taconic: Diane Schuler

On July 26, 2009 Diane Schuler killed herself and seven others when she drove the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway.

Schuler, a 36-year-old Long Island mother of two, was at the wheel, drunk and high, headed south at 70 mph in the northbound lane.

On that bright sunny day 10 years ago, families were shattered in a fiery crash that killed eight, including four girls, ages 2 to 8.

The accident is said to be the worst accident in Westchester County, NY. in 75 years.

At first there was speculation that Schuler had a medical emergency which led to the accident, as she seemed fine to witnesses who saw her prior, but eventually toxicology results revealed that she was driving under the influence.

Schuler’s BAC was discovered to be .19, double the legal limit, and that she had smoked marijuana as early as 15 minutes before the accident.

A broken, 1.75-liter bottle of Absolut vodka was also found in the wrecked minivan.

Volunteer fire chief Joseph LaGrippo, one of the first at the scene of the horrific Taconic crash, described it as something “no human should have to see.”

“I’ll never forget what happened that day.”

– Joseph LaGrippo

The Accident:

It all began when Schuler took off the wrong way on the Taconic in a van filled with her two children, Erin, 2, Bryan, 5, and three nieces, Emma Hance, 8, Alyson Hance, 7, and Katie Hance, 5.

Schuler’s vehicle sped down the parkway for 1.7 miles before crashing head-on into a SUV driven by Guy Bastardi, 49. Bastardi’s car was also carrying his father Michael Bastardi, 81, and their friend Daniel Longo, 74.

Schuler’s 5-year-old son, Bryan, was the sole survivor of the accident.

“That’s the only thing that made it bearable, that boy,” LaGrippo said.

Schuler’s minivan was in flames, the Bastardis’ SUV was decimated and bodies of dead and dying children were lying on the parkway.

“It was the worst thing I’ve seen in 24 years,” said state Police Capt. Arthur Boyko of Troop K. “The ages of the victims and the nature of the accident made it harder.”

Panicked calls to 911 poured in immediately following the accident.

911 Call Transcript:

911 operator: Sleepy Hollow Police 911 emergency.

Caller: There’s an accident. Route 117, what is this? Pleasantville Road.

911 operator: Ma’am? Ma’am?

Caller: Good God. Wait a second I’m not from around here. Hold on hold on.

(Phone is given to someone else)

Second caller: We’re on the Taconic going northbound by the Sleepy Hollow/Pleasantville exit Route 117.

911 operator: Route 117 and Taconic?

Second caller: Yes we’re on the Taconic going northbound right by the exit for Sleepy Hollow/Pleasantville.

911 operator: Sleepy Hollow, Pleasantville?

Second caller: Yes.

911 operator: Are there any injuries?

Second caller: I really don’t know. Hold on, let me check it out. Hold on. Um, honestly. Hold on. I really don’t know. Um yeah there are. There’s like little kids — the kids not moving. Yeah, there’s whole bunch of kids. Honestly the car is smashed…

911 operator: OK. No problem.

Second caller: The car is missing pieces.

911 operator: OK, I’ll call.

Second caller: It’s really bad, the kids are bleeding.

Although the toxicology report stated that Schuler was heavily intoxicated, Schuler’s husband, Daniel, has consistently denied that she abused drugs or alcohol, and has made multiple media appearances to defend his wife.

He called for further investigation into other possible medical causes for her erratic driving.

Leading up to the accident:

At approximately 9:30 AM on Sunday, July 26, 2009, Schuler left the Hunter Lake Campground in Parksville, New York, in a red 2003 Ford Windstar. Riding with Schuler were her 5-year-old son, 2-year-old daughter, and her brother’s three daughters (ages 8, 7, and 5).

Her husband, Daniel Schuler, left the campground at the same time in a separate vehicle.

A co-owner of the campground later said that Diane appeared sober when she departed.

On the way to West Babylon, New York, Schuler stopped at a McDonald’s fast-food restaurant and a gas station in Liberty, New York.

While at the gas station, she attempted to buy over-the-counter pain medication, but the store did not sell any.

Schuler left Liberty just after 11 AM, traveling along Route 17/Interstate 86 and Interstate 87, entering the Ramapo service area, and crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge, heading east.

Witnesses later reported seeing a red minivan driving aggressively on Route 17/Interstate 86 and Interstate 87, including tailgating, flashing headlights, honking the horn, and straddling two lanes.

At 11:37 AM, Schuler called Warren Hance, her brother and the father of the three nieces in Schuler’s car. She told him that they were being delayed by traffic.

According to a police report, Schuler was seen at approximately 11:45 AM by the side of the road with her hands on her knees, as if vomiting; she was seen again in the same position a short time later, north of the Ramapo rest stop.

At about 1 PM, another call was made to Hance from Schuler’s cell phone. During this call, one of Schuler’s nieces reportedly told her father that Schuler was having trouble seeing and speaking clearly. Schuler then talked to Hance herself and said that she was disoriented and couldn’t see clearly.

Police believe that the car was stopped in a pull-off area beyond the Tappan Zee Bridge tollbooths for at least part of this call. Hance reportedly told Schuler to stay off the road while he came to meet them; follow-up calls from Hance to Schuler were not answered.

A motorist later found Schuler’s cell phone by the side of the road near the toll lanes of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

At 1:33 PM, two drivers called 911 after noticing Schuler’s van edging onto the northbound exit ramp of the Taconic State Parkway near Briarcliff Manor, New York. The end of the exit ramp is marked with two signs that read Do Not Enter and two signs that read One Way.

The exit ramp itself is unmarked. Within the next minute, four more 911 calls were placed by motorists who reported that a car was traveling the wrong way down the parkway.

Schuler’s van traveled south for 1.7 miles in the parkway’s northbound passing lane before colliding head-on, at approximately 1:35 PM, with a 2004 Chevrolet TrailBlazer, which then struck a 2002 Chevrolet Tracker.

Witnesses flew into action to pull Schuler and the kids from the burning van, which had rolled over as it went down an embankment onto a grassy median.

Schuler, her daughter, and three of her nieces were killed in the crash, along with the three men in the TrailBlazer. The two occupants of the Tracker suffered only minor injuries.

Schuler’s remaining niece and her 5-year-old son Bryan were taken to area hospitals, where her niece died later that day. Bryan survived suffering from broken bones and severe head trauma.

After the Accident:

A toxicology report released on August 4 by Westchester County medical examiners found that Schuler had a blood-alcohol content of 0.19, with approximately six grams of alcohol in her stomach that had not yet been absorbed into her blood.

The report also said that she had high levels of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in her system and had smoked marijuana as recently as 15 minutes prior to the collision.

Westchester Medical Examiner

Diane Schuler’s husband and his attorney Dominic Barbara consistently denied that she ever drank to excess or could have been drunk while driving that day.

Daniel Schuler eventually admitted that he and his wife had been drinking during the weekend, but he denied that Diane had anything to drink the morning of the crash.

The campground co-owner, who claimed to know the Schulers well and saw them off at approximately 9 AM that morning, said that Schuler appeared sober when she left.

The gas station employee whom Schuler asked for Tylenol around 11 AM also said, “[I knew] for a fact [that] she wasn’t drunk when she came into the station.”

According to Tom Ruskin, an investigator hired by Daniel Schuler, no McDonald’s employees saw any signs of intoxication in Diane Schuler, although she engaged in extended conversation there while ordering food.

Ruskin told reporters in September that he had interviewed over fifty people who knew Diane, none of whom had ever seen her in a drunken state.

Daniel Schuler told investigators that his wife smoked marijuana occasionally and the family told PEOPLE magazine that she used it to relieve insomnia. Although Daniel Schuler is an officer in the Public Security Unit of the Nassau County Police Department, he was not required to report his wife’s drug use because he is a civilian.

In November, it was reported that Diane Schuler’s sister-in-law had made a statement to police that Diane Schuler smoked marijuana on a regular basis.

Daniel Schuler and Barbara publicly attributed Diane Schuler’s erratic driving to a medical issue, such as a stroke.

According to Barbara, Diane Schuler suffered from diabetes — though additional sources cite Schuler as having had gestational diabetes a temporary condition related to a prior pregnancy rather than a chronic condition.

Barbara has also mentioned an abscess that had persisted in her mouth for seven weeks before her death and a lump in her leg, about which he said could have been a pulmonary embolism.

The results of an autopsy conducted by a Westchester County medical examiner one day after the accident found that Schuler had not suffered a stroke, aneurysm, or heart attack.

Daniel Schuler intended to re-test the fluid samples taken during the autopsy. The Westchester County medical examiner’s office, which performed the autopsy, said that the degradation of the fluids over time was likely to result in lowered alcohol and THC readings; however, several toxicology experts said that the results should be similar to the previous test if the fluid samples had been properly stored.

In June 2010, the New York State Police issued its final report on the accident following eleven months of analysis. The report upheld the previous toxicology findings that Schuler was highly intoxicated and had high levels of THC in her system at the time of the accident

On November 7, Ruskin announced that the Schuler family had raised the money to retest Schuler’s tissue samples and that the retesting would take place soon.

There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane (HBO Doc)

The documentary suggests that Schuler could have been suffering from severe pain caused by a tooth abscess during the drive home. This would explain why she was looking for pain medication at a gas station. When she was unable to find any, she self medicated with drugs and alcohol.

The pain of the abscess, combined with vodka and marijuana, could have put her in a temporary state of delirium  that triggered her fatal behavior.

In the documentary, Daniel and Barbara claim they gave Ruskin $30,000 to conduct an independent investigation and to re-test samples. Throughout the documentary, Daniel and Jay Schuler, Diane’s sister-in-law, claim that Ruskin was not returning their phone calls for nine months.

At the end of the documentary, Ruskin states that he had called her months ago with the results and that she refused to pick up her phone. She is seen claiming that “she was told not to pick up” and “that she didn’t understand any of it.”

Ruskin then informs her that his tests corroborated the previous tests; that Schuler was highly intoxicated from alcohol and marijuana.

Schuler’s family persisted in refusing to accept the test results

Autopsy Report

Police Report

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