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Originally published Sunday, July 25, 2010 at 8:46 AM

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Mysteries persist a year after crash that killed 8

The scar is almost gone from the highway where a suburban mother sped the wrong way for more than a mile with a minivan full of children while stoned and drunk, sparking a fiery crash that killed her and seven other people.

Associated Press Writer

MOUNT PLEASANT, N.Y. —

The scar is almost gone from the highway where a suburban mother sped the wrong way for more than a mile with a minivan full of children while stoned and drunk, sparking a fiery crash that killed her and seven other people.

The grass burned away by Diane Schuler's red minivan has almost grown back on the highway median. Streaks of black ash have been washed away by 12 months of snow and rain.

But questions remain about what drove the 36-year-old suburban mom to guzzle booze and smoke marijuana on the way home from a camping trip with her two children and three nieces - especially for those who lost loved ones in the fiery wreck.

"There isn't a day where it doesn't hit you all over again. When I wake up, it's still the first thing on my mind, every day," said Michael Bastardi Jr., whose father and brother were killed in an SUV hit head-on by Schuler's van. "For this woman to do what she did, in my opinion something had to trigger her off."

The day that keeps replaying for family of the dead is July 26, 2009, when Schuler drove past do-not-enter signs on an off-ramp and barreled onto the northbound Taconic State Parkway north of New York City. Schuler was heading toward her Long Island home after a weekend with her husband, son, daughter and nieces - the kids ages 2 to 8 - at an upstate campground.

One niece, 8-year-old Emma Hance, had called her father during the trip to say Schuler was behaving strangely.

By the time Schuler crashed into an oncoming SUV 1.7 miles down the parkway, she was going the wrong way at 85 miles per hour, ignoring honks from frightened fellow motorists and disregarding several opportunities to get out of traffic.

The SUV she slammed into head-on was going 74 mph, state police said. The impact killed Schuler, her daughter Erin, and nieces Emma, Alyson and Kate Hance of Floral Park. Schuler's son, Bryan, survived.

Michael Bastardi Sr., 81; his son Guy Bastardi, 49; and Daniel Longo, 74, a family friend, all of Yonkers, died in the SUV. They had been on their way to a family dinner.

Through mournful wakes and funerals, Schuler was praised for her devotion to her children and her nieces. "Never has there been a more responsible and trusted friend or caregiver," the extended family said in a statement.

But the mystery behind the crash persisted as an autopsy ruled out a stroke, aneurysm or heart attack. Then, nine days after the crash, came the shocking autopsy results: Schuler's blood-alcohol level was 2 1/2 times the legal limit, and she had smoked marijuana within an hour of the crash. A broken bottle of Absolut vodka was found in her minivan.

The revelations raised national discussions about secret drinking, especially among women.

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The federal Transportation Department announced that the number of women arrested for drunken driving had jumped 30 percent in the past decade.

Schuler's husband, Daniel Schuler, insisted for months that his wife could not have been drunk or high and that the Westchester County autopsy was wrong. Schuler called his wife "perfect" and went on national television several times with lawyer Dominic Barbara to make his case.

They suggested her behavior could have been caused by a blood clot or her use of Anbesol. Barbara said the sugar in her blood could have been boiled into alcohol in the car wreck.

Bastardi Jr. said Daniel Schuler's defenses exacerbated his pain and kept him waiting for answers. Because Schuler died in the crash, there was no criminal trial and no charges filed.

"They say time heals all wounds, but he just kept reopening the wound," Bastardi said.

"I just wish Mr. Schuler would sit down and tell us what went on at the campsite."

The Bastardi family has sued the Diane Schuler estate.

Calls to Barbara have gone unreturned for weeks. Daniel Schuler chased a reporter from his West Babylon, N.Y., home last week, saying, "Get off my property, get off my property."

Tom Ruskin, Schuler's investigator on the case, said he is back at work for Nassau County's park police. "He's getting by. He misses Diane," Ruskin said.

Bryan Schuler, now 6, suffered a head injury and broken bones in the crash and is still recovering but back in school, Ruskin said.

"He misses his mother, his sister, his cousins," he said.

Relatives and friends of the Hance girls established a foundation that supports children's programs including a self-esteem program for girls and a Christmas-gift program for needy children, said foundation director Bernadette Smith.

"The intention of the foundation is to honor the memories of Emma, Alyson and Kate - extraordinary girls - by helping as many children as possible," Smith said.

The girls' parents and their lawyers did not respond to requests for interviews.

Some foundation supporters are marking Monday's anniversary by tying lime-colored ribbons around trees in Floral Park. Three Masses are also being celebrated for the girls in Floral Park. In Yonkers, there will be a Mass for the Bastardis and Longo, followed by the families' trip to their graves.

After that, Michael Bastardi Jr. says, he will drive onto the Taconic and briefly stop at the spot in Mount Pleasant where his father and brother died.

"I don't drive down there that much, and I've been able to avoid it for a year," he said. "I didn't really want to see it. But now I think I'm ready."

---

Associated Press writer Frank Eltman in West Babylon, N.Y., contributed to this report.

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