A minivan driver apparently wasn't feeling well before going the wrong way on a suburban parkway for nearly 2 miles, leading to a fiery wreck that killed eight people, police said today.
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.
Authorities said the victims include the 36-year-old minivan driver, Diane Schuller of West Babylon, Long Island, and her 2-year-old daughter, Erin. Also killed were Erin's cousins: 9-year-old Emma Hance, 7-year-old Alison Hance and 5-year-old Kate Hance.
The fifth child, a boy, age 5, was hospitalized.
Investigators are exploring the possibility that the accident was caused by some sort of medical condition. Schuller called her brother two hours before the crash and told him she wasn't feeling well, 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.
Six people called 911 to say a driver was going the wrong way.
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.
Three men from Yonkers in the SUV were killed, Becerra said. They were driver 49-year-old Guy Bastardi; his father, 81-year-old Michael Bastardi; and 74-year-old Daniel Longo. Bastardi was on his way to visit one of his two sisters to do some shopping for a big annual family trip to Wildwood, N.J., they were planning. 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.