Taconic Parkway Crash

Diane Schüler was careful, responsible, even fastidious.  She ran a financial division of Cablevision, ran a home as the mother of two, broke no laws, gave no sense of being irresponsible in any way.

Then one day she drove, at high speed in broad daylight, the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway in New York.  Several drivers coming at her had dodged out of her way, but she didn’t seem to notice. Then the SUV that didn’t react in time, and the horrible head-on crash.  Four of the dead were either her or her sister’s children.  The three persons in the car she hit all died, and four families were crushed, forever.

Some say she had a painfully abscessed tooth, which she medicated that day any way she could.  Significant levels of alcohol, and marijuana, were said to be found in her system.  But how does that explain the behavior of such a paragon of responsibility?  What happened that day on the Taconic Parkway?

THE STORY

The file on the Taconic Parkway crash, like all our files, is a work in progress. As new information surfaces, and as mystery buffs weigh in, we will always add and re-evaluate the case.

Jackie Hance, sister-in-law of Diane Schuler, is shown in photo with two of her three daughters who were killed in crash Sunday when Schuler entered Taconic Parkway and drove the wrong way

Jackie Hance, sister-in-law of Diane Schuler, is shown in photo with two of her three daughters who were killed in crash Sunday when Schuler entered Taconic Parkway and drove the wrong way

The Long Island mom driving the wrong-way minivan in the Taconic State Parkway tragedy called her brother two hours before the crash to say she was sick and disoriented, cops said Monday.Warren Hance told his sister, Diane Schuler, to pull over and wait for him to pick them up.

But she kept going.

Two hours later, Schuler plowed into an oncoming SUV, killing herself, her daughter, her brother’s three little girls – and three others in the other vehicle.

“She didn’t indicate specifically what was bothering her, but obviously something was wrong because her brother did ask her to pull over,” said State Trooper James Murphy, lead investigator into Westchester’s worst highway accident in 75 years.

Daily News Writers, July 27, 2009

The above is typical press coverage, bewildered, by a bewildering event. Hundreds, thousands of articles actually were written in the aftermath.

But we can boil the essentials down for you.

Key points:

  • Diane was super-responsible in her life overall, at least her image
  • She was functioning normally on that family camping trip
  • She was said to be in good spirits when she last was seen in charge of all the young children
  • Her route home was slow and circuitous, inexplicably
  • A video exists of her stopping at a convenience store to ask for a pain medication, which they didn’t have (no audio)
  • It seems she drank steadily throughout the day, as per blood-level alcohol tests (and a stashed Vodka bottle)
  • Some intake of THC, ingredient of marijuana/cannabis, occurred as well
  • Her behavior became increasingly erratic, even desperate
  • She reported enough distress to her brother (father of three in her care) that he said, stay put, I’m coming to get you
  • She took off anyway, spiralling apparently more and more out of control
  • She dialed some wrong numbers, dodged some family calls, finally ditched her phone before the last fatal stretch
  • She’s reported to have driven her last miles with an almost serene look, unfazed, hands at the ten and two positions
  • It seems she drove the wrong way on the Parkway, nearly two miles, quite high speed, cars dodging collision at the last second, oblivious to what was going on

Within two years a quality documentary emerged as described below by the NYTimes, if you have the time, it’s worth a look:

The story of Diane Schuler and the horrifying collision she caused is a series of mysteries that probably can’t be solved but that could, from some angles, be seen as fairly easy to explain. The layers of anger, guilt and what many would call blind faith that surround the case, however, have given it a tragic intensity, making the unanswerability of the questions seem profoundly painful.

Liz Garbus, an Oscar and Emmy nominee for “The Farm: Angola, USA,”takes a hard look at those questions in a new documentary, “There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane.” (Ms. Schuler drove the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway in Westchester County, N.Y., causing the crash that killed her and seven other people, including her daughter and three nieces.)

A scene from the film on the crash caused by Diane Schuler that killed her and seven others in July 2009. CreditHBO

A scene from the film on the crash caused by Diane Schuler that killed her and seven others in July 2009. CreditHBO

A scene from the film on the crash caused by Diane Schuler that killed her and seven others in July 2009. CreditHBO

There are two contradictory sets of questions in the case, depending on who is asking, and Ms. Garbus pursues them all. On one hand, why was Ms. Schuler driving with marijuana and the equivalent of 10 shots of alcohol in her body, as tests later showed? Was she a habitual drinker, and if so, did her husband and other family members know?

NY Times, Jul 24, 2011

DRUGS AND ALCOHOL
Longtime friends and family members claimed they never saw Diane Schuler drink. Her brother-in-law, Jimmy Schuler, claimed she would throw out drinks at parties if she tasted booze in them. A neighbor claimed she was an upstanding citizen who lived for her kids.
 
This raises an important question. If Diane Schuler was struggling with substance abuse before the accident, were loved ones unaware of her drinking? It’s possible her loved ones minimized her drinking after the crash to preserve her memory. However, she could have hidden her issues with alcohol from others.

Ranker.com, posting date unidentified

But, on the contrary:

In November of 2009, Diane Schuler’s sister-in-law Joan Schuler spoke to investigators. She claimed Diane was a very heavy drinker who smoked marijuana every day. According to her, Diane Schuler considered marijuana medicinal and used it to ease anxiety.

Ranker.com, posting date unidentified

A well-known phenomenon: full-blown Alcoholism and heavy Denial, all in the same, agonizing package.

Almost always, and especially in this case, even more agonizing to everyone in the alcoholic’s orbit, than for the diseased drinkers themselves.

No question, Mary was hitting the bottle pretty steady that day, and mixed sleep medications and a bit of cannabis, who’s to say just how far her brain chemistry was pushed.

And thus the question, was Mary’s behavior as simple (and as complicated) as the phenomenon of a drunken blackout (a waking departure from awareness)?

It’s a scenario that’s commonly reported, even no doubt in the experience of a few of you readers. Someone’s being berated for everything they did last night in a drunken state, it’s no excuse, they’re scolded. Seriously, did I do tha? the drunk asks very sincerely.

In fact, they have no memory of it. They could have flown to China and then taken the next flight straight back, and they wouldn’t recall it whatsoever. As if they were sleepwalking, just really out of it, going through motions they’re unaware of, in any normal sense.

Was a full-on blackout state Diane’s status that day, on July 26, 2009?

THE GUILTY SECRET THEORY

The Guilty Secret Theory (well expressed in an interesting podcast from Cold Case Murder Mysteries) differs slightly from the theory of Diane operating in a booze-induced blackout or fugue state. That’s the “dissociative” sort of barely-aware sleepwalking state, or in this case a sleep-driving state, we referred to in the last section.

This theory’s a first cousin, but emphasizes the bind Diane was in, psychologically, as a super-mom and super responsible person, but a woman coping less and less successfully with serious stresses, and substance abuse.

It’s essentially this: that the root of the problem was Diane’s secret alcoholism, hidden even from intimates. On this deadly day she was losing her grip, trying to self-medicate against whatever extra level of physical (perhaps abscessed tooth) or emotional pain she was managing. The fact that she couldn’t talk about her predicament was key–she started to dodge phone calls from family, dialed wrong numbers as she flailed about.

Remember, her brother who sensed the danger was on the way to meet her and rescue the kids, but she dodged that, too. At all costs, she couldn’t be discovered.

Ultimately: the frustration of finding no relief, no way out, no way to keep up the charade, and a crescendo of stress all led to a sort of brain short-circuit, a type of dissociation a little different from a “normal” blackout state. It represented a psyche so at war with itself that it simply quit functioning in normal patterns.

We’d like to hear from specialized psychologists on this–on its surface at least the theory makes a certain sense, and doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.

What’s your analysis of what went so wrong with Aunt Diane?

THE MESSAGE BOARD OF A TRAGEDY

We reserve this space in memory of the eight lives lost, four of them just little children, on the Taconic Parkway that day.

 
 
 
Respectful comments are invited here.

If you know more about any facet of this case, scientific or psychological, feel free to increase our knowledge.

And if you knew any of the people involved, and can add to our human understanding, please share.