The Taconic State Parkway Crash of 2009

Diane and Daniel Schuler on their wedding day. | HBO

In 1934, a bus full of passengers heading from Brooklyn to Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York, plummeted down an embankment into a ravine, setting the bus ablaze. This fatal accident that claimed the lives of all 20 passengers was considered the worst automobile accident in Westchester County history.

That is, until July 26, 2009.

Diane Schuler was born on November 13, 1972 in Floral Park, New York. She was the fourth child of Warren Hance, Sr. and Eileen McKeough. She was the youngest and, with three older brothers, the only girl.

Diane’s mother left the family when she was just nine years old, leaving her to take on a lot of responsibility for her age & become the woman of the house.

Diane was described as being headstrong and always taking charge. Her friends from childhood remember her as being the class clown and always fun to be around. That she had a good head on her shoulders and was always very responsible for her age.

While at a friend’s wedding, she met who would become her husband and the love of her life – Daniel Schuler. After marrying and starting their lives together, they had two children: a son named Bryan and a daughter named Erin.

Diane and Daniel with their two children, Bryan and Erin. | Associated Press

By 2009, Diane was the Director of Credit, Billing and Collections at Cablevision. Daniel was a security officer who worked the night shift so they had complete opposite schedules, leaving Diane to do much of the work surrounding the kids and the home.

This was nothing new for her, however. Her friends and family remember her as being the boss and always being in control of everything. In Diane’s world, nothing was left up to chance.

They even described her as being somewhat of a “super mom” – somehow finding the time to juggle a full-time career while shuffling the kids around, never a hair out of place or a wrinkle in their clothes.

Somehow, she made it all seem so easy.

The morning of July 26, 2009 was the ending of a fun-filled weekend. The Schuler family were finishing up a camping trip at the Hunter Lake Campground in Parksville, New York.

With them were their three nieces, who were the daughters of Diane’s older brother, Warren Hance: eight-year-old Emma, seven-year-old Alyson and five-year-old Katie.

(From right to left) Alyson, Emma, Bryan, Katie and Erin pictured at the campground that weekend. | HBO

After waking up early to finish cleaning out the boat and packing all of their bags, Diane packed up the red 2004 Ford Winstar minivan that belonged to her brother, Warren. They borrowed it to make sure they could safely transport all of the kids home.

At 9:30 a.m., Diane left the Hunter Lake Campground in the red minivan with Daniel following behind with the family dog in their pickup truck.

They drove together until they reached the parkway. Daniel continued the drive to their home in West Babylon so he could rest before his night shift at work. Diane split off so she could get the kids breakfast and stop for gas.

At 9:56 a.m., Diane stops in the small town of Liberty and visits the local McDonalds to get food for all of the kids. They spend some time eating and playing in the playground, continuing the fun times from their trip.

A little while later, at 10:46 a.m., Diane is spotted on surveillance footage pulling into a Sunoco gas station. She parks at one of the pumps and runs inside of the convenience store, leaving the children in the van. She asks for some over-the-counter pain medication that they don’t have and promptly leaves the store.

Surveillance footage of Diane at the Sunoco gas station. | Newsday

At 11:37 a.m., Diane calls Jackie Hance, her sister-in-law and the mother of her three nieces. She informs her that they are running late but assures her that they will make it for her niece’s play practice later that day.

About a half an hour later, at 12:00 p.m., a motorist on Interstate 87 named Gerald Salerno notices a red van weaving back and forth quickly between lanes and driving aggressively. He remembers seeing the woman gripping tightly onto the steering wheel and wearing a concentrated look on her face.

He even remembers the heads of the children in the backseat swaying back and forth as the vehicle moved at high speeds.

At the Harriman Toll Plaza, Francis and Jean Bagley notice a red minivan driving so closely behind them that they cannot even see the headlights. They hear the horn blaring behind them and watch as the van attempts to pass them on the shoulder but is unable to.

The horn continues to sound behind them as they pull off into a rest area, the van in tow. As the Bagley’s pulled into the car lane, they watch as the minivan pulls off into the truck area. They see the woman step out of the drivers side and bend over, hands on her knees as if she was going to throw up.

After coming out of the rest stop at 12:30 p.m., they noticed that the red minivan was gone.

A wrong number was dialed from Diane’s phone at 12:55 p.m. Just a few minutes later, at 1:00 p.m., Diane calls Jackie Hance sounding disheveled and disoriented.

They talk for just a bit until the call ends abruptly at 1:01 p.m.

Warren frantically calls Diane back, noting that she does not sound like herself. At one point, she referred to him as “Danny,” her husband’s name, and he knew something was wrong because he could hear the children crying in the background.

He urges Diane to stay pulled over where she is so he can come and get them. His daughter, Emma, gets on the phone, anxious and afraid.

“Daddy, there’s something wrong with Aunt Diane.”

She also mentions to her dad that Diane could not see. As Warren races to find them, Emma tells him that she can see an exit for Tarrytown in the distance.

The shoulder around where Diane pulled over to talk to her brother. |

Then, the call ends.

At 1:10 p.m., someone dialed three wrong numbers from Diane’s phone, one after the other. Five minutes later, Warren attempts to reach Diane, but the call goes to voicemail.

At 1:33 p.m., two drivers make separate calls to 911 after noticing that a red minivan is inching onto the northbound exit ramp of the Taconic State Parkway.

In the next minute, four more 911 calls are placed by alarmed motorists reporting that a red minivan was traveling the wrong way of the parkway going around 75 to 85 miles-per-hour.

The van traveled 1.7 miles until the tragic inevitable happened.

At 1:35 p.m., Diane collided head on with a 2004 Chevrolet Trailblazer. In the aftermath of the crash, the Trailblazer then crashed into a 2002 Chevrolet Tracker.

By the time she crashed into the Trailblazer, Diane was traveling at a high speed of 85 miles-per-hour.

The force of the collision caused the red minivan to roll over as it fell down an embankment and land on a grassy median as it burst into flames.

The burnt shell of what was once the red minivan. | The New York Times

Diane, her daughter and two of her nieces were killed on impact. Her other niece succumbed to her injuries and passed away later on in the hospital.

Diane’s son, Bryan, was the sole survivor of the accident. He sustained multiple broken bones and severe head trauma that left him with a condition called oculomotor nerve palsy that affects movement in his right eye.

All three men in the Trailblazer, 81-year-old Michael Bastardi, 49-year-old Guy Bastardi and 74-year-old Daniel Longo were also killed upon impact.

The two passengers traveling in the Tracker suffered minor injuries from the secondary crash.

As witnesses and onlookers flooded 911 with calls urging for help with the accident and paramedics and police heading to the scene, two bystanders ran to the minivan to get everyone out of the mangled, burning car.

As they pulled Diane’s body from the driver’s seat, they discovered something on the ground that would raise even more alarms.

Lying amongst the wreckage were the broken pieces of an Absolut Vodka bottle.

The broken Absolut Vodka bottle discovered at the scene. | HBO

As confusion and anger rocked the community, the autopsy report released by the police on August 4 would raise even more questions and concerns.

According to the toxicology report, the Westchester County medical examiners found that Diane had a blood-alcohol level of 0.19%, over double the legal limit in New York, which is 0.08%. On top of that, there was another six grams of alcohol in her stomach waiting to be absorbed.

All in all, the amount of alcohol in her system equaled to about ten drinks.

They also discovered that Diane had very high levels of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in her system. Based on the amount that was observed, they calculated that she could have smoked between 15 minutes to an hour before the crash.

The news of the toxicology results rocked the community. The same question rang in everyone’s minds:

How could this seemingly-perfect PTA “supermom” do something like this?

Immediately after the results were released to the public, Daniel, his family and his attorney, Dominic Barbara decided to hold a press conference of their own. Here, Daniel vehemently denied any suspicions that his wife was an alcoholic or a drug addict.

Daniel at the press conference publicly defending his wife. | The New York Times

“I go to bed every night knowing. She did not drink. She was not an alcoholic,” Daniel said. “My heart is rested every night. Something medically had to have happened.”

As publicity surrounding this tragedy mounted and families of the victims and the community demanded answers, the police began to piece together the events of that day and try to answer how this could have happened.

They started by retracing Diane’s steps that day to piece the timeline together. Starting at the McDonald’s that she stopped in that day, all of the employees state that they do not recall Diane seeming intoxicated.

One employee remembers that they even carried on a long conversation together, and they were confident that she was not drunk.

Moving to the Sunoco gas station, they hear a similar story from the clerk that spoke to Diane for that brief moment when she came in looking for pain medication. They were adamant that they knew for a fact that Diane was not drunk when she came into the store.

Even the co-owner of the campground that the Schuler’s visited over the weekend, who knew the family well, remembers everything seeming normal and that Diane appeared sober.

Witnesses that shared the road with Diane when she went northbound on the exit ramp recall that Diane was driving completely straight, as if no one else was on the road with her.

They describe it like she was playing a game of chicken with the other drivers. She drove straight at high speeds, and it was up to the other drivers to swerve around her because she was not moving.

The element they remember the most is the calm, almost serene look on Diane’s face the entire time she was driving the wrong way.

All of these confusing pieces just left everyone with more questions than answers, especially with Diane’s family, including her brother and sister-in-law who lost all three of their daughters, insisting that she was not a heavy drinker and did not do drugs.

The crushed remnants of the Trailblazer that carried Michael Bastardi, Guy Bastardi and Daniel Longo. | All That’s Interesting

Then, the stories started to conflict.

Daniel’s sister, Diane’s sister-in-law, Jay, actually revealed that Diane would smoke marijuana regularly because she had trouble sleeping.

Daniel then started to change his tune about Diane’s drinking habits, going from claims that she never drank to testimony that she rarely drank. Then, his recollections changed again to where Diane would have a drink about once or twice a month.

He then confirmed Diane’s marijuana usage, however stating that she only smoked marijuana occasionally to relax and unwind at night.

Despite all of this, Daniel and Jay refuse to believe that Diane would ever purposefully put her children and nieces in harm’s way. They were adamant that it had to be due to a medical issue.

He mentioned that Diane had been struggling with pain due to a tooth abscess and would constantly rub her jaw and move her mouth around. He suggested that perhaps Diane had an infection in her tooth that spread to her brain, or maybe she had a stroke while driving that caused her to drink the vodka thinking it was water.

Despite hiring their own private investigator to retest Diane’s blood and look for new evidence, they merely confirmed the findings of the Westchester County medical examiners. They confirmed her blood-alcohol level and the levels of THC in her blood, and they found no signs of any medical anomalies.

Given that there was evidence through dental records that Diane struggled with tooth pain and issues for years, investigators theorized that perhaps she self-medicated. After the gas station store did not have pain medication, she figured she would have some drinks to numb the pain and possibly misjudged how much she could handle.

If she indeed self-medicated with alcohol and marijuana, the combined effects are much more powerful and disorienting than people may realize and can even cause psychosis.

The crash was ruled a homicide since it was caused by Diane’s negligent driving. However, the district attorney’s office did not file any charges since Diane was the sole cause of the accident.

“Diane Schuler died in the crash, and the charges died with her,” said Janet DiFiore, the district attorney at the time.

Sadly, the never-ending tragedies surrounding the crash tore the family apart.

Warren and Jackie Hance ceased all communication with Daniel and stopped publicly supporting Diane after learning the details of the investigation and the toxicology report. After losing all three of their children, the emotional toll was unbearable.

Warren and Jackie Hance with their three daughters. | The Daily Mail

Jackie Hance filed a lawsuit against Daniel, claiming that her daughters suffered terror, fear of impending death, extreme horror, fright and mental anguish.

The Bastardi family sued Diane’s estate for damages due to wanton, willful and reckless conduct.

Daniel filed a suit against the state for not, “keeping the roads safe,” and even sued Warren Hance as the owner of the minivan that Diane was driving on that day.

By July of 2014, all lawsuits were either settled or dropped.

In spite of the odds, there were some positive impacts made after this senseless tragedy occurred.

Shortly after the crash, David Peterson, the Governor of New York at the time, proposed and signed into law the Child Passenger Protection Act. This would make it a felony to drive while intoxicated if a passenger in the vehicle is under the age of 16.

In honor of their late daughters, the Hance’s started the Hance Family Foundation, an organization dedicated to boost self-esteem in young girls and empower women beyond education. On their website, they include powerful testimonials describing Emma, Alyson and Katie, teaching us that, “their girls lived with enthusiastic confidence.”

In 2012, the Hance’s also welcomed a baby girl into their lives named Kasey Rose.

“When you have absolutely everything taken away from you – and I mean, everything – when someone hands you something, it is everything,” Warren Hance told CBS News. “That is what she is to us today.”

Michael Bastardi, Guy Bastardi and Daniel Longo. | Oprah

Michael Bastardi is remembered as a loving father, grandfather and great grandfather who was passionate about working on cars and was always there to fix any household problems that arose.

Guy Bastardi is described by family members as a big family man who loved cooking and traveling. They said that you could always call Guy and he would be there for you no matter what.

Daniel Longo is remembered by his loved ones as a gentle soul and a great brother, uncle and friend.

This case makes many who learn about it wonder: How well do you really know someone?

Today, we honor and remember the innocent lives that were lost in the crash. This post is dedicated to Erin Schuler, Emma Hance, Alyson Hance, Katie Hance, Michael Bastardi, Guy Bastardi and Daniel Longo. This is also in dedication to every good samaritan who pulled over to help the victims and witnessed this traumatic event.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s