The news today that Diane Schuler was simply drunk and stoned is shocking.
Ronda Kaysen: The story was tragic enough to begin with: a mother driving her two young children and three nieces home from a camping trip gets confused and disoriented and drives nearly two miles in the wrong direction on a highway before hitting another car head-on and killing a total of eight people, including herself. Mysteries and suppositions swirled about what went wrong: did she have a condition that resembled diabetic shock? Why did she abandon her cell phone? How did she manage to drive for so long on the wrong side of the highway?
The news today that Diane Schuler was simply drunk and stoned is shocking. The 5' 2" woman had a blood alcohol level of 0.19 and fresh alcohol still in her stomach that hadn't even metabolized yet. She smoked marijuana as recently as 15 minutes before the crash.
The carnage left in the worst crash on the Taconic State Parkway in 75 years is stunning. In her own car, Schuler killed herself, her 2-year-old daughter, and three nieces: Emma, 8; Alyson, 7; and Kate, 5. In the SUV that she hit head-on, she killed Michael Bastardi, 81, his 49-year-old son, Guy, and a family friend, 74-year-old Daniel Longo. The lone survivor was Schuler's 5-year-old son, Bryan, who is still hospitalized.
Today's revelation casts a dark shadow on a chain of events that seemed strange from the start. The Schulers left the campsite at 9:30 AM, with Mr. Schuler traveling in a separate car from his wife. They stopped for breakfast and nothing seemed amiss. Shortly before the crash, Schuler called her brother, Warren Hance, the father of the three little girls. He was so disturbed by their conversation that he set out to find them. And then Diane Schuler abandoned her phone on the side of the road for no apparent reason.
The autopsy report raises more questions than it answers. Suddenly a family's tragic loss becomes far more complicated and sinister. If Schuler had a serious drinking and drug problem, someone must have known and allowed her to drive those children home. What transpired between Mr. and Mrs. Schuler before they left the campsite? Did he know she had alcohol in the car? Had she already started drinking? A shattered bottle of vodka was found in the charred minivan. Schuler wasn't just sipping chardonnay, she was boozing hard.
Mrs. Schuler's blood alcohol level was the equivalent of drinking 10 shots of 80-proof liquor, the New York Times reported. "She would have had difficulty with her perception, with her judgment, with her memory," Elizabeth Spratt, director of toxicology for the Westchester County Department of Laboratories and Research, said. "Around that level of alcohol, you also start to get what's called tunnel vision, where your perception is changed so you can't see peripherally all the time."
Drinking of this magnitude couldn't possibly have been a freak occurrence. Someone, presumably Schuler's husband, knew that she had a serious substance abuse problem and let her drive those children -- who knows on how many different occasions -- while intoxicated. Or perhaps she hid a secret life all too well. From the start, I wondered if she was on a suicide mission: distraught about something that transpired. Perhaps, drinking that much while driving a car at high speed was a suicidal act. It's terrifying to think that a mother of two would act so recklessly with so many lives.
The Bastardi family has been quick to respond to the news. "We were victims the first time, but we feel like we're being victims all over again because she made that choice," Roseann Guzzo, whose father and brother were killed when Schuler's car hit their Trailblazer, told the Times. "How do you put five children in a car when you're a mother who's a drunk?" Ms. Guzzo said. "We're mothers. I would never do something like that. It's crazy."
Schuler's family, meanwhile, has been silent. Surely, the news was a devastating blow. But in the coming days, someone will have to start answering questions.
|Ronda Kaysen is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, BusinessWeek.com, Architectural Record, Huffington Post, New York Observer and AM New York. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.|