Diane Schuler was a devoted mother admired for her competence, ease with children and sense of humor. Never, her family said, had there been a more responsible and trusted friend or caregiver.
So far, no one can pinpoint why Schuler, 36, drove the wrong way
on a familiar suburban New York parkway for nearly 2 miles before
slamming head-on into another vehicle, killing herself and seven
State police investigating the fiery July 26 wreck on the Taconic State Parkway are examining a phone call Schuler made to her brother shortly before the crash. She was taking her two children and three nieces home from an upstate camping trip at the time.
A medical examiner is digging deeper for answers after ruling
that Schuler didn't have a heart attack or stroke behind the wheel,
and plans further testing to determine whether she had signs of an
advanced diabetic condition.
The crash - the worst in the parkway's 75-year history - killed
Schuler, her 2-year-old daughter and three nieces ages 5,7 and 8,
as well as three Yonkers men in the SUV hit by her minivan. Only
Schuler's 5-year-old son survived.
"I have never heard of eight people being killed in an accident
of this kind," said Peter Plante, a retired Connecticut state
trooper and traffic accident reconstruction expert. "It's almost
as if it were a perfect storm of circumstances with so many people
in each vehicle."
Douglas Hayden, an attorney and spokesman for the Long Island
family, declined comment on the investigation Friday.
The accident happened on a sunny and clear summer afternoon in
Briarcliff Manor on a route from upstate New York to Long Island
that Schuler had driven many times before. She found herself going
south in the northbound lanes as motorists sought in vain to get
her attention; six drivers called 911 before the collision.
One of the few clues state police have is a telephone
conversation between Schuler and her brother, Warren Hance, the
father of the older girls who died. About a half-hour before the
wreck, Schuler called Hance at his home in Floral Park and seemed
disoriented, saying she was having trouble seeing. Her husband had
left the campground earlier Sunday for a fishing trip, police said.
At one point, Hance's 8-year-old daughter Emma took her aunt's
cell phone and spoke to her father, indicating the van had just
crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge south into Westchester County. Hance
then told his sister to stay put and he would drive from Long
Island to meet her, instructions she disregarded.
Family friend Lisa Acosta said the Schulers camped almost every
weekend at the same upstate park, and said Schuler knew the route
so well she could have driven it blindfolded.
"I don't understand," said Acosta. "It's a really, really sad
Schuler's cell phone was left at the parking area south of the
bridge, where she last spoke to her brother. A motorist found it
later in the day.
After forensic pathologists ruled out a stroke, aneurysm or
heart attack, Dr. Kunjlata Ashar, deputy medical examiner for
Westchester County, said she would test Schuler's eye fluid for
evidence of heightened blood sugar levels, a possible sign of
The American Diabetes Association says ketoacidosis is a
life-threatening condition that can cause shortness of breath,
nausea and confusion.
Noted forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden doubted that
possibility for Schuler.
"People just don't have a hypoglycemic crisis out of the
blue," said Baden, who has been an expert witness in cases
involving celebrities such as John Belushi, O.J. Simpson, Phil
Spector and David Carradine. "The family would know right away if
this woman had issues with diabetes."
Baden said other toxicology testing results, due within four to
six weeks, could yield some answers.
"They didn't see anything in the autopsy that could account for
this behavior," he said. "Now they are going under the microscope
to see if they can find something."
Ashar said her testing also has ruled out carbon monoxide
poisoning as a possible cause.
Except for issuing a written statement about the victims, the
Schuler and Hance families have chosen to grieve privately.
"Diane was an accomplished working mother who balanced her
responsibilities with grace; she always put her children before any
other priorities," the family statement said.