A family’s minivan going in the wrong direction crashed into two cars on a suburban parkway on Sunday, killing eight people, including four young cousins and the mother of one of them.
State police Investigator Joseph Becerra said the minivan was traveling southbound in the northbound lanes of the Taconic State Parkway in Westchester County, just north of New York City, when it struck an SUV and then careened into a third vehicle. The minivan rolled down an embankment, where it burst into flames.
The minivan’s front end appeared to have been almost entirely smashed in, and its shell was scorched and bent. At least one wheel was blown out.
Fire spread from under the minivan, throughout its shell, within minutes.
The crash in Briarcliff Manor claimed driver Diane Schuller, 36, of West Babylon, as well as her 2-year-old daughter, Erin, and three young nieces, Emma Hance, 9; Alison, 7; and Kate, 5. The fifth child, a boy, age 5, was in stable condition at Westchester Medical Center. Three men in the car she hit also died, driver Guy Bastardi, 49; his father, Michael Bastardi, 81; and Daniel Longo, 74, all of Yonkers.
The minivan belonged to Schuller’s brother, Warren Hance. Schuller apparently told him in a phone call about two hours earlier that she was feeling ill, state police said at a news conference. Hance told her to pull over and said he would go to get her. It’s unclear where she was at the time or exactly what occurred after that.
Schuller was the mother of the surviving child, and the other children were her nieces and her daughter, Becerra said.
The afternoon accident was the second wrong-way crash on the parkway on Sunday, and police said they didn’t know why either driver was going in the wrong direction or where the drivers entered the parkway. Five people were injured in an early morning collision between two vehicles, one of which was headed northbound in the southbound lanes. That accident occurred about 20 miles north of the later incident.
A witness to the fatal crash, Katrina Papha, who was traveling north on the parkway to a family barbecue in Mahopac, said she saw the accident in her rearview mirror.
“One car goes this way, one goes that way, up in the air, both of them,” she said. “I was crying. I was shaking.”
Her brother, Peter Dedvukaj, driving in another vehicle, said he saw smoke ahead and traffic came to a standstill.
“People were getting out to help, shouting, ‘We need help! We need help!'” Dedvukaj said. “Everybody said, ‘There are kids in the car.'”
He said he and others opened a door of the minivan and “there was a body in front of us.” He said they helped pull out the children they could see — two girls, who appeared to be dead, and a boy, who was kicking and screaming.
Hawthorne fire Chief Joe LaGrippo, among the first emergency responders to arrive at the scene of the accident in the tiny village of Briarcliff Manor, about 35 miles northwest of New York City, said the boy suffered significant head trauma.
LaGrippo said that when he got there the minivan was engulfed in flames. He said one of the children was dead and three others were near death.
“We go out quite frequently, but thank God we’ve never seen anything of this magnitude,” LaGrippo said.
Two people in the other vehicle hit by the minivan were hospitalized.
The parkway, which stretches about 100 miles from Valhalla, in Westchester County, to East Chatham, in Columbia County, was closed to traffic in both directions in the area for hours following the crash.
Later, four people died in a crash on Long Island’s Montauk Highway in Copiague. In that incident, a car and a minivan collided, killing three passengers in the car and one in the minivan.
The scenic Taconic State Parkway was built over a number of years in stages beginning in the early 1920s, initially as an extension of the Bronx Parkway from New York City to Bear Mountain Bridge.
Associated Press radio reporter Craig Smith contributed to this story from Washington, D.C.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.