On July 26, 2009, Diane Schuler was driving a minivan with her two children and three nieces inside. They had just left Hunter Lake Campground in upstate New York to head back home to Long Island.
They never made it home, and what happened on that trip is a horrible mystery that ended in the deaths of eight people.
Diane drove on the Taconic Parkway in the wrong direction for almost two miles before crashing head on into an oncoming SUV, killing herself, her daughter, all three of her nieces, and the three men in the SUV. Her five year old son was the lone survivor.
Several calls were made from inside that minivan before the crash. One was from one of Diane’s nieces who called her father (Diane’s brother) frantically telling him, “There’s something wrong with Aunt Diane”. Everyone in the family was panicked, trying to reach Diane, trying to get authorities to locate the car. Diane had previously called her brother and his wife, once that morning when things were fine, chatting about day to day things. Only twenty minutes after that last “normal” call, everything changed.
Calls after that from Diane were nearly incoherent, with Diane sounding disheveled—not making sense. It seemed as if she was having some sort of medical episode.
After the crash, an autopsy was done on Diane Schuler. It was revealed that her blood alcohol level was almost twice the legal limit (equaling about ten drinks), and large amounts of marijuana were found in her system. Family and friends were shocked. By all accounts, Diane Schuler was a responsible, intelligent woman; an excellent mother, and a beloved aunt, wife, and sister. Her nieces adored her. She had a job making $100,000 a year, and was well regarded and respected by her coworkers.
The pieces just didn’t fit. How could this have happened, and what really happened?
I learned about Diane Schuler’s story by watching the HBO Documentary, “There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane”. I actually ended up watching it several times, and making my husband watch with me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. This was a tragedy on so many levels.
Diane’s husband Danny was featured in the documentary, and he and his sister-in-law Jay were the most prominent faces in the film. It has become Jay and Danny’s mission to clear Diane’s name and to try and find out more about what happened that terrible day. Both believe something medical happened, as the Diane they knew was not an alcoholic or a heavy drinker. They both admit that she occasionally smoked marijuana. But Jay denies that Diane would have ever done anything to intentionally hurt the children- her own and her brothers-that she loved so much.
In the documentary, a full portrait is painted of Diane. At the age of nine, her mother left her family, and Diane became the “mom” in a house full of brothers. Maybe because of this early trauma, Diane became a typical “Type A” personality, needing to be in control, to have things planned and in place. Almost everyone interviewed that knew about Diane mentioned her needing to be in control and being incredibly organized—almost obsessively so. But she wasn’t neurotic or distant, she created a warm, wonderful world in all her plans and organization, and was deeply loved by her husband, children, brother, sister-in-laws and her nieces—who were especially dear to her.
The events of July 26, 2009 and every moment of Diane’s life leading up to that day are a complete contradiction. This is obviously a passionate issue for those who lived in the area and remember the crash, and even for people like me that are just learning about this via the documentary. People immediately demonized Diane as a “drunk” and a “monster”. The documentary shows comments people made on websites, underneath news stories about the tragedy. Diane is called horrible things, damned by those who maybe only know the sound bytes or headlines surrounding the case.
No one will ever know what happened. You cannot deny the alcohol and marijuana in her system- the autopsy was repeated and DNA tested twice. But, the story is not that simple. If Diane had a history of erratic behavior, drinking heavily, or irresponsible activities, perhaps there would be more blame to place. It makes me so sad that someone’s life is reduced to a moment that we will never know the full truth behind.
I cannot imagine the pain that Warren and Jackie Hance (Diane’s brother and sister-in-law) have endured—in one moment, they lost all of their children, three beautiful girls. It pains me, and I have thought of them every day since first seeing this documentary.
But Diane Schuler was not a monster. I believe something happened that morning, and she made poor choices, perhaps not in her right mind. It is maddening to watch the videos of her less than an hour before the crash, stopping at a gas station, looking normal, and in no way drunk or even confused. She stopped at a McDonalds that morning to get all the kids breakfast, and the staff there remembered her, and were certain she wasn’t drunk or acting unusual or erratic. And she was completely normal at 11:37am when talking to Jackie Hance on the phone, and did not give Jackie any signs of alarm. Only 20 minutes later, that all changed.
In the documentary, Danny Schuler, (Diane’s husband) doesn’t do himself any favors. He comes across as defensive and distant, angry and defiant. As he and Jay search to try and clear Diane’s name, their inability to do so only causes his frustration level and defensiveness to rise. But, as people in his community and across the country demonize his wife, and attack his family, I wonder how this has contributed to who he is now. His choices recently (and after the documentary was made) don’t help matters, and I can honestly say I have been disgusted with his latest choices- which include suing Warren and Jackie Hance, as Diane was driving their minivan that day- the day they lost all three of their daughters.
I felt so badly for Jay Schuler—Diane’s sister-in-law, who was trying desperately to clear the name of a beloved family member that she truly did not believe could have made the choices that led to the accident. Jay was certain that there was going to be some medical explanation, but there wasn’t. I believe Jay’s only motivation was to clear Diane’s name for the family, and for her surviving son Brian. Watching Jay read the horrible things people said about her late sister-in-law was heartbreaking.
Whatever happened that day, I do not believe there is any evidence that Diane did anything intentional to hurt the precious children in her car, or the three men in the other vehicle. A terrible, horrible, unthinkable thing happened, but this should not the only legacy for a woman who led an otherwise normal, beautiful life.
I have been guilty of reading articles over the years and making snap judgments. It’s easy to become enraged over the acts and coincidences that happen, no matter how unintentional, that take the lives of others, especially when there are children involved.
Watching this documentary, I want so badly to turn back time. I want to stop the tape and rewind it, get those kids out of that car—get Diane out of that car—stop it all from happening. I cannot imagine what the close family members go through, what they wish for, how they are haunted. And not knowing the truth, not having that closure, has to be maddening.
Somehow, Diane made poor choices that morning, horrific choices that led to a disaster. Perhaps she had a hidden drug or alcohol problem. Perhaps her husband even knew more than he is saying. But, it doesn’t matter. It truly doesn’t. The blame is hers- she was responsible for what happened that day. But we are all so much more than our worst moments, our worst choices. Diane Schuler is gone, and the answers went with her. Eight lives were lost. Nothing can bring them back. But in the days leading up to that accident, in all the days, months and years she was someone’s wife, someone’s mother, someone's aunt, someone’s sibling, someone’s child, someone’s best friend…she was loved, respected, and today she is missed. She was more than one day, more than a bad choice or choices.
And I for one hope she rests in peace.
Please read this beautiful article by Jackie Hance written with so much grace and strength.