Two years ago, there was a brutal car accident on the Taconic Parkway just a bit north of NYC. Eight people were killed in three cars because one of those cars was driving southbound in the northbound lane at approximately 70 mph. That’s 70 mph going the wrong way — you can imagine how terrifying that must have been for those going the correct way that tragic July day. Turns out the car driving the wrong way was filled with five children, four of whom died.
That car was driven by a woman named Diane Schuler, a cable company middle manager and housewife. Her daughter and three nieces — all of her brother’s children — were killed immediately; Schuler’s young son Brian survived. That was horrible enough but Schuler’s autopsy produced a new horror — she had consumed the equivalent of ten shots of vodka and had smoked marijuana while taking the kids from a family campground to her home in Long Island.
Schuler’s devastated family insisted that she was not an alcoholic and indeed, rarely touched alcohol. So it became a mystery — what happened during that drive? Were the toxicology tests correct? Was Diane a closet alcoholic? And what would make her put those children at risk?
Filmmaker Liz Garbus tackles this mystery in her HBO documentary “There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane.” The title comes from a statement one of Diane’s nieces made to her father on a cell phone call during that terrifying drive. The film has received mixed reviews and has come under fire because Garbus includes photographs of Diane taken just after she died in the accident.
I found the documentary compelling but more than that, it made me understand what most likely happened on that drive and, for me at least, snapped all the puzzle pieces into place. It’s clear for instance that Diane Schuler that day was in blinding pain from an abscessed tooth. It turns out she was afraid of dentists and kept avoiding treatment for that tooth. As a result, that tooth was killing her that morning. Her husband and others report that she constantly massaged the outside of her face to assuage the pain.
During that drive, Schuler stopped at a gas station (we see the video) asking for pain medication. They didn’t have the type she wanted and she continued on her way. At some point just past the Tappan Zee Bridge, she pulled over for awhile and it appears that it was there that she self-medicated by swigging vodka and smoking a joint. A vodka bottle was found in the car and relatives report that she used marijuana to help her sleep.
Fortified with alcohol and grass, Schuler was clearly disoriented and very high, and tragically wound up driving the wrong way on the Taconic. Other witnesses in this fine documentary report how she was completely oblivious to their attempts to warn her she was going the wrong way. She just drove on to her death and wound up killing seven others.
It’s mind-boggling that something as seemingly inconsequential as an abscessed tooth could be the culprit for the chain of events that followed but it makes the most sense, more than anything else I’ve heard. It doesn’t mean that Schuler was an alcoholic — there is a lot of evidence to the contrary. It’s just that she was in tremendous pain. I don’t think anyone can know how painful an abscessed tooth can be unless you’ve had one yourself, as I have. The pain was so blinding that I sat as still as I could, afraid to move my fingers on my computer keyboard. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to drive with five children in a car with that type of pain.
But in the end, this tragedy was Diane Schuler’s fault — she had no business being on that road and help was already on the way as frantic relatives sped to the scene to take over the driving. Unfortunately for all, they got there too late.
[Footnote: In a truly mind-boggling development, Diane Schuler’s husband Daniel last week filed a lawsuit against the state charging that the highway was poorly designed; he also is suing his brother-in-law whose three daughters were killed in that crash charging that the brother in law was ‘vicariously liable’ because the minivan belonged to him. Read the comments attached this article to see how those lawsuits are being perceived.]