Hundreds of healthy, strong Americans who awaken to a new day do not live to see the next one. In a blur, they’re killed by a gun, a knife, a screeching car or the proverbial bus. They are gone from us, and the lives of their loved ones and friends are changed, usually for the worse and sometimes forever.
Most of the time these are strangers. We read what happened, perhaps remark on their bad fortune, and quickly return to our own thoughts and needs and lives.
But sometimes the story of another’s demise is so compelling, so unbelievable, so frightful that we can’t get it out of our minds.
This is one of those stories. It’s still evolving, still unsettling, more than two years after the dramatic events that I’ll describe.
They were front-page news for days on end, and this year the cable network HBO produced a 90-minute documentary recounting not only what everyone agrees happened, but also what remains in heated dispute.
Exactly why any of it occurred may never be determined for certain.
The documentary is entitled, “There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane.”
That is indisputable. Something was very wrong with Diane Schuler on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, July 26th, 2009, when she drove a minivan head-on into a sport utility vehicle on New York State’s divided Taconic Parkway.
One would think this was the action of a blotto drunk or addled dope fiend; a desperately ill, horribly disoriented, or terribly fatigued person; or a suicidal maniac.
Which description fit Diane Schuler two summers ago remains very much in question.
But the story might have faded, or certainly not made headlines, had she not been carrying five small children in the car. The oldest was 8. All but her 5-year-old son, Bryan, died on impact or at a hospital, as did all three men in the vehicle that Diane hit head-on. Bryan suffered massive head injuries that left him with persistent nerve palsy affecting his mobility and vision.
Diane’s husband, Daniel, a night-watch security guard and part-time civilian employee at his town’s police department on Long Island, had driven from the family home to their favorite lakefront campground on the previous Thursday. Accompanied by the family dog, Bear, he would enjoy a couple of solitary days, fishing.
Friday after work, his 36-year-old wife, Diane, a successful cable-company executive and the mother of their two little children, packed her kids and three nieces into a Ford Windstar minivan borrowed from her brother, Warren Hance — the nieces’ father — and headed upstate to join Daniel at the campground.
Saturday, according to the camp owner, the family splashed in the lake, laughed at a cookout, and smiled broadly for photos along the shore.
Sunday morning, Diane shared coffee with Daniel, helped pack the van, and, about 9:30, left for home, 225 kilometers away, with all the kids in tow.
Daniel drove home separately with Bear, the Schulers having agreed that it would be unsafe for children to ride in his truck cabin or its open bed.
Unsafe. An ironic twist to the story.
Diane and her charges took a meandering route and made several stops — for breakfast, gas, and other reasons to be described.
About four hours into the trip, somehow and for some reason — or no deliberate reason at all — she turned off a highway called Pleasantville Road, barreled down an exit ramp of the Taconic Parkway, and onto the parkway heading south — straight into oncoming northbound traffic.
For almost three kilometers, as she drove “pin-straight ahead,” as one witness described it, at what a police report called a high rate of speed, other drivers swerved to avoid collisions. Many frantically honked their horns while their passengers dialed emergency-911.
State troopers were racing to intercept Diane at 1:35 p.m. when the doomed driver and two passengers in a Chevrolet TrailBlazer SUV could not and did not avoid the speeding minivan.
That’s the shorthand version of what happened that summer day. The contentious details of this tragic, puzzling story are still unfolding.
A perfectionist by most accounts, Diane Schuler ran most every detail of her household, if only because Daniel worked nights. Once the vivacious “class clown” in school and what her friends and those relatives who would speak to the media call a “take charge person” in school and in life, she waged a perpetual battle to control her weight.
Diane, who had practically raised three brothers herself after her mother abandoned the family when Diane was 9, was described by several people as a doting parent. “She was the perfect wife and an outstanding mother,” Daniel said into the camera on the HBO documentary.
Although she had grown distant from her childhood and school chums, many of them remembered her as upbeat, in love with her husband, proud and secure in her job, and optimistic about the future.
One former friend, though, described her as “tightly wound, controlling.”
But suicide, they all agreed, would have been the farthest thing from her thoughts.
No one who appeared in the show said Diane had a problem with booze. At first, Daniel said she wasn’t a drinker at all. Then he admitted that she had an occasional social drink or two. Nothing more. In one of the head-scratching mysteries of this case, Diane was observed three different times on the fateful trip — at the campground, over breakfast at McDonald’s, and inside a convenience store — to be steady, sober, and acting unremarkably.
Viewers of the HBO program watched footage of her, time-stamped about 10:45 a.m., walking away from her car at a gas pump into the convenience store, past a clerk — with whom she exchanged a few unrecorded words — and out again without the slightest wobble. The attendant testified that she asked for gel-cap painkillers, which he didn’t carry. She walked out, steadily and empty-handed.
Yet an autopsy would reveal that Diane Schuler had consumed not just a drink or two, but at least 10 shots’ worth of vodka — enough to produce a .19 alcohol reading in her bloodstream at autopsy. That’s more than twice the .08 legal threshold for impaired driving. The medical examiner found no organ damage consistent with alcoholism, however.
The state police recovered a broken, jumbo (1.75-liter) bottle of vodka under the front seat of the burned-out wreckage of the minivan. And there was more. The coroner determined that Diane had been smoking marijuana between 15 minutes and an hour before her death. On the road while driving home.
Daniel Schuler and, Jay, the wife of one of Diane’s brothers, who often helped care for the Schuler kids and appeared with him prominently in the documentary, said the idea that Diane was drinking, and heavily, had to be some preposterous mistake.
Not only did Diane rarely drink, they insisted, she surely wouldn’t have chugged half a bottle’s worth of hard liquor on the road with five loved children in the car. The toxicology reading must have been in error. Or blood samples had somehow been switched. Yes, though, Daniel and Jay had to admit, Diane, who fought persistent insomnia, often smoked a joint to relax at bedtime.
Daniel reported that his wife, who was terrified of dentists, had suffered terribly with an abscessed tooth, often clutching her jaw as if in agonizing pain. She had fled a dentist’s office as the tooth was to be treated. It is well known, he argued, that an abscess can spread to the brain, causing disorientation, strokes, even death.
Diane was, remember, shown seeking pain caplets on the fateful drive, they pointed out. That must be it. Diane had a stroke or an embolism and was terribly impaired at the time of the crash.
Is unbearable tooth pain what 8-year-old Emma Hance meant when she spoke to her father at about 1 p.m. and told him, “There’s something wrong with Aunt Diane?” Or the effects of ten deep swigs of vodka combined with several tokes on a joint of pot?
Emma had called her dad an hour and a half earlier to tell him the gang was running late and not to worry. Diane spoke to Warren, too — briefly and, he would tell authorities, quite normally.
Half an hour later, the nieces’ mother, Jackie Hance, called back and again spoke to Diane. She sounded fine.
But within the next hour, something went wrong with Aunt Diane, all right.
During that period, other drivers later reported, Diane was seen driving aggressively, her red minivan zigzagging along the road. One driver attested that Diane approached his vehicle menacingly from the rear, practically ramming his bumper. She honked her horn furiously and flashed her headlights, he said, even drove onto the right shoulder in an attempt to get past him. Both cars then came upon a rest area, where the driver and his wife observed her pulling to a stop, stepping out of the car, and putting her hands on her knees, as if to vomit.
According to her cellphone records, Diane — or someone — called four wrong numbers during the hour before the fatal crash.
Her cellphone was found on a concrete “Jersey barrier” just past a tollbooth on the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River. She had pulled over to talk with the Hances, police concluded.
Warren Hance got Diane’s location and told her to stay put at the bridge. He would come to get them, he said. Hance hung up and rushed out to his car, bent upon finding her. He also called police, asking them to put out an “amber alert” for the minivan.
But Diane did not stay put. By 1:35 p.m. she had driven, “obliviously,” according to one witness, the wrong way on the busy Taconic Parkway and head-on into a car driven by three men enroute to a family party.
Daniel Schuler hired a private investigator in hopes of studying and refuting his wife’s toxicology reading. He and the investigator bickered for weeks over money, but eventually the private eye provided the results.
To Daniel’s dismay and disbelief, they fully corroborated the coroner’s findings that Diane was drunk and stoned at the time of the crash.
Later, Daniel Schuler fought in court to obtain an order allowing him to exhume his wife’s body for new, independent toxicology testing. He was rebuffed.
This year, lawsuits over the case have flown in many directions. Daniel is suing New York State, saying the Taconic Parkway was badly designed and poorly posted, enabling his wife to all too easily enter an exit ramp by mistake. He is also suing his brother-in-law on grounds that the Hance minivan that Diane had borrowed and was driving was faulty.
In turn, Jackie Hance is suing Daniel Schuler. Her young children knew they were doomed and “suffered . . . terror, fear of impending death, extreme horror, fright, [and] mental anguish,” the lawsuit reads.
The Bastardi family, relatives of two of the men in the vehicle struck head-on by Diane Schuler’s speeding Windstar, are suing Diane’s estate as well as Warren Hance, on grounds of “wanton, willful, and reckless conduct.” They are required to include Hance, the suit stipulates, because he owned the minivan that struck their relatives. Michael Bastardi Jr. told the media, “It’s impossible to live with losing [his relatives and their friend] and still have to listen to people talk about how she was the perfect mother.”
And earlier this year, on behalf of his dead daughter and disabled son, Daniel Schuler counter-sued the estate of Guy Bastardi, driver of the SUV, claiming that Bastardi, too, was driving recklessly.
It’s all a tawdry denouement to a gruesome and sad story of the untimely deaths of four adults and Erin Schuler, 2; Emma Hance, 8; Alyson Hance, 7; and Kate Hance, 5.
There’s a story behind each and every senseless death on the highway, of course. When we drive past a horrific crash scene, thinking “there but for the grace of God go I,” we try not to think too long or too hard what that story might be.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Corroborate. To confirm or give supportive testimony regarding a story or event.
Denouement. Pronounced “day-new-MAW,” this French word refers to the final outcome of a long series of events. It is often used to describe the last part of the final act of a stage play.
Doting. Spoiling, acting uncritically toward another. A proud parent dotes on his or her child.
Preposterous. Ridiculous, unbelievable, impossible according to the rules of reason or nature.
Proverbial. So well known that it’s become a stereotype. Something that’s referred to in time-worn proverbs or fables. The proverbial fox in the henhouse, for example.