At approximately 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, July 26, 2009, 36-year-old Diane Schuler left the Hunter Lake Campground in Parksville, New York, in a red 2003 Ford Windstar that belonged to her brother. Riding with Schuler were her 5-year-old son and 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 since he had a pickup truck and took the dog with him. A co-owner of the campground later said that Diane Schuler appeared sober when she departed.
On the way to West Babylon, Schuler stopped at a McDonald's fast-food restaurant and a gas station in Liberty. While at the gas station, it is claimed on surveillance video with no sound that she attempted to buy over-the-counter pain-relief medication, possibly for a painful tooth, but the gas station did not sell any.
Schuler left Liberty just after 11 a.m., traveling along Route 17/Interstate 86 and the New York Thruway (Interstate 87), entering the Ramapo service area, and crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge, heading east. Several witnesses later reported seeing a red minivan driving aggressively on Route 17/Interstate 86 and Interstate 87, including aggressively tailgating, flashing headlights, honking the horn, moving in and out of lanes, and straddling two lanes. At 11:37 a.m., Schuler called Warren Hance, her brother and the father of the three nieces, from the van. She reportedly told him that they were being delayed by traffic. According to a police report, Schuler was seen by witnesses at approximately 11:45 a.m. 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 p.m., 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 herself then talked to Hance 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. For some unknown reason, she left her cell phone on the highway, which was found by another motorist by the side of the road near the toll lanes of the Tappan Zee Bridge.
Investigators were trying to determine how (and why) Schuler got from the bridge to the Taconic State Parkway ramps near Briarcliff Manor, New York, which is where the next information in this timeline comes from.
At 1:33 p.m., two drivers called 911 after noticing Schuler's van edging onto the northbound exit ramp of the Taconic State Parkway near Briarcliff Manor. The end of the exit ramp (41°08′34″N 73°48′51″W), at the intersection with Pleasantville Road, 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 going approximately 75-85 mph.
The van traveled south for 1.7 miles in the parkway's northbound passing lane before colliding head-on, at approximately 1:35 p.m., with a 2004 Chevrolet TrailBlazer, which then struck a 2002 Chevrolet Tracker. At the time of impact, Schuler was traveling approximately 85 mph. Schuler, her daughter, and two of her nieces were dead at the scene of the crash (the children did not appear to have been in car seats, or even to have had seatbelts fastened), along with the three men in the TrailBlazer: 81-year-old Michael Bastardi, his 49-year-old son Guy, and their friend, 74-year-old Dan Longo. The two occupants of the Tracker suffered only minor injuries. Schuler's severely injured third niece and Schuler's 5-year-old son Bryan were taken to area hospitals, where the niece died later that day. Bryan is the only passenger of Schuler's vehicle to survive, suffering from broken bones and severe head trauma. He remained hospitalized before returning home in early October.
Two men who witnessed the accident and smoke rising out of the van ran to assist the occupants. After removing Schuler from the van, the two men saw a large, broken Absolut Vodka bottle by the driver's side. The men tried to pull the girls out of the van, and noted that they had no pulse. Because the children possibly were not seat belted in and thrown together, the men did not even notice Bryan stuck under another child.
The investigation of the collision drew nationwide attention, as Schuler's husband strongly disagreed with the conclusion that she was heavily intoxicated at the time of the crash. A toxicology report released on August 4 by Westchester County medical examiners found that Schuler had a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.19%, with approximately six grams of alcohol in her stomach that had not yet been absorbed into her blood. The legal BAC limit for Driving While Intoxicated in New York State is 0.08%. The report also said that Schuler had high levels of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in her system. She could have smoked marijuana as recently as fifteen minutes before the accident.
Daniel Schuler and his attorney, Dominic Barbara, first denied that Diane did drugs or was drinking that weekend at the lake since several children were with them. He then changed the story and consistently denied that she ever "drank to excess" or could have been drunk while driving that day, even though Daniel left hours earlier in a different car. When Larry King and Oprah Winfrey asked Daniel about the vodka bottle in the van, Daniel made excuses that they had a one year old vodka bottle that they always had in a camper, and then since Diane did all the packing for the camping trip, she then packed up gear and moved the bottle into the van, an explanation that King and Oprah continued to question him about. Daniel eventually admitted that he and his wife had been drinking during the camping trip, but denied that Diane had anything to drink in the day preceding the crash. The campground co-owner, who claimed to know the Schulers well and saw them off at approximately 9 a.m. that morning, said that Schuler appeared sober when she left; the gas station employee whom Schuler asked for Tylenol around 11 a.m. 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 supposedly for $30,000, no McDonald's employees saw any signs of intoxication in Schuler, when she engaged in extended conversation there while ordering food and orange juice.
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. Ruskin also pointed to autopsy results that showed an absence of organ damage often found in alcoholics, although an uninvolved medical examiner said such results do not rule out alcoholism. Schuler relatives have also disputed that Diane was known to drink heavily or irresponsibly.
Daniel denied that his wife did drugs, but told investigators that his wife smoked marijuana only "occasionally," and the family told People magazine that she used it to relieve insomnia. Although Daniel 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 as he is a civilian. In November, it was reported that Diane's sister-in-law had made a statement to police that she actually smoked marijuana on a regular basis.
Daniel and Barbara believed that Schuler drove erratically due to a medical issue, such as a stroke. According to Barbara, Schuler was obese for much of her life and suffered from diabetes, although additional sources cite Diane as only 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, "[It] might have been an 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.
In September, New York's top forensic pathologist said that a hair test should have been done to determine Schuler's drug history. Daniel and his lawyer announced plans to exhume the body to perform the hair test and other examinations; experts said that this was unlikely to produce any new information of value since tests from two separate labs came up with the exact same conclusion. Schuler also 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. 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. In July 2010, it was reported that Daniel had accepted a $100,000 offer from a film company, Moxie Firecracker Films, to record Schuler's exhumation for an HBO documentary. Daniel's lawyer said that the money would be placed in trust for Diane's son Bryan.
Daniel's persistence in disputing his wife's intoxication and denying his wife's drug use has been condemned by relatives of the three TrailBlazer victims. When Schuler appeared on CNN's Larry King Live to demand more testing of his wife's remains, Longo's brother Joseph issued a statement saying in part, "I want Daniel Schuler to know that he keeps inflicting more pain on all concerned once again [by] going to the media to try [to] paint a picture of a perfect wife and mother." Bastardi's daughters appeared with their lawyer on NBC's Today, during which they questioned Daniel's culpability in enabling his wife's substance abuse and called for him to undergo drug testing himself. "It makes me angry that he keeps denying it," said Margaret Nicotina, Bastardi's daughter. "Every time he does it, he brings it back for us. I just wish that he would just admit that she was drunk. Maybe if he knows what happened that morning, if they argued or anything, that would be the truth. He wants the truth. So do we." Their lawyer called Daniel's position totally outrageous, an insult to the intelligence of the American public, and a hoax. Ruskin said on The Oprah Winfrey Show in October 2009 that Daniel had avoided media appearances since Larry King Live out of respect to the Bastardi family.
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.
According to a Westchester County medical examiner, the crash was ruled a homicide soon after it occurred because the victims were killed because of Schuler's driving, regardless of toxicology findings. On August 18, Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore said that no charges would be filed in the incident, as Schuler was the only person responsible. "Diane Schuler died in the crash and the charges died with her," DiFiore said. In October 2009, DiFiore faced accusations that she had mishandled the Schuler case from Dan Schorr, a Republican challenger for her office, as well as from an attorney for the Bastardi family. Both parties said that DiFiore should have initiated a grand jury investigation into the incident. In response to Schorr's comments, DiFiore responded, "Is he suggesting that there was criminal evidence of a crime committed by someone and we wouldn't pursue it? That's just silly." DiFiore won re-election in November with 53 percent of the vote to Schorr's 36 percent. The Bastardi family said that if DiFiore did not convene a grand jury, they would seek support in the matter from the state attorney general and the governor.
Following a request from the Bastardi family that an administrator be appointed for Schuler's estate so that a lawsuit could be filed, Daniel officially declined the role in November 2009, leaving it to a county-court judge to appoint a public administrator. On December 10, the Bastardi family filed suit against Diane Schuler and her brother, Warren Hance, seeking unspecified damages for wanton, willful, and reckless conduct. According to the family's lawyers, they were required by state law to include Hance in the suit because he was the owner of the van that Schuler was driving.
In July 2011, Jackie Hance, who lost her three daughters in the accident, filed suit against her brother-in-law, Daniel Schuler. The suit claims that the three deceased Hance girls suffered terror, fear of impending death, extreme horror, fright, and mental anguish. On July 26, 2011, the day after the premiere of HBO's There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane, and on the second anniversary of the crash, Daniel announced that he is suing the State of New York for not "keeping the road safe" and his brother-in-law Warren Hance for being the owner of the minivan that Diane was driving. By July 2014, all lawsuits by all parties were either settled or dropped. The judge sealed all the settlements.
In August 2009, New York Governor David Paterson proposed the Child Passenger Protection Act, which would make it a felony to drive while intoxicated if a passenger under the age of 16 is in a vehicle. The proposal became known as Leandra's Law, following the October 2009 death of 11-year-old Leandra Rosado, a passenger in a vehicle whose driver was drunk. The Child Passenger Protection Act was signed into New York law on November 18, 2009.
In September 2009, the syndicated talk show Dr. Phil broadcast an episode about drunk-driving moms that focused heavily on Schuler and the crash. The next month, Oprah Winfrey devoted an episode of her show to the crash, interviewing Schuler's private investigator Tom Ruskin via Skype and responding incredulously to several of his claims.
The Law & Order episode "Doped," which first aired in November 2009, centers on a crash extremely similar to the Taconic Parkway incident. The fictionalized version features a woman who speeds down the West Side Highway in the wrong direction before crashing and killing herself, her daughter and her two nieces, and three men in another car. Bastardi relatives reacted with anger upon hearing that the NBC show would be basing an episode on the real-life tragedy.
There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane, directed by Liz Garbus for HBO Documentaries, establishes a timeline of events prior to the accident. The documentary suggests that Schuler could have been suffering from severe pain caused by tooth abscess during the drive home, causing her to look for painkillers at the gas station and self-medicate 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, Barbara and Daniel Schuler claim they gave investigator Ruskin $30,000 to conduct an independent investigation and to re-test samples again. Throughout the documentary, Jay and Daniel claim that Ruskin was not returning their phone calls for nine months. At the end of the documentary, Ruskin tells Jay 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 Diane was highly intoxicated from alcohol and marijuana. Jay and Daniel persist in refusing to accept the test results.
Jackie Hance wrote a book called I'll See You Again in which the tragedy is revisited, focusing on her initial grief and later reemergence into life. Stephen King's short story "Herman Wouk is Still Alive" in Bazaar of Bad Dreams (2015) is, according to King, a fictional attempt to find answers to questions about what led to the crash and "perhaps to obtain some sort of closure."
Jackie and Warren Hance formed a foundation, the Hance Family Foundation, whose main purpose is to honor the lives of their three daughters by ensuring healthy, happy, and safe children through innovative self-esteem educational programming. The foundation's central project is Beautiful Me, a self-esteem program designed to educate girls by promoting appreciation for their genuine qualities, accurate self-awareness, and the satisfaction of helping others.
A year after the accident, despite having her tubes tied years before, Jackie Hance went to a fertility doctor and quickly got pregnant. She gave birth to another daughter Kasey in 2011.