As Warren Hance desperately tried Sunday to call back his sister, Diane Schuler, her cell phone lay useless on the side of the New York State Thruway. It had been inexplicably abandoned after she told him she was disoriented and having trouble seeing, State Police said.
Investigators said Wednesday they believe Schuler, of West Babylon, had crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge into Westchester County and stopped the minivan in a pull-off area just after the tolls to call her brother.
Ford minivan the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway, causing a fiery crash that killed eight people, said State Police Investigator James Boyle.
The dead include Schuler, 36, and her daughter, Erin, 2, of West Babylon; Hance's daughters, Emma, 8, Alyson, 7, and Kate, 5, of Floral Park; and three Yonkers men in an SUV, Daniel Longo, 74, Michael Bastardi, 81, and his son Guy Bastardi, 49.
The lone survivor, Schuler's son, Bryan, 5, continued to recover yesterday at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y., a hospital spokesman said.
The crash came just a half-hour after Hance and family friends frantically called State Police around 1 p.m. and asked them to look for the red Ford Windstar minivan Schuler was driving. Two troopers were assigned to the search immediately, Boyle said.
Investigators are not sure how Schuler's cell phone ended up in the pull-off area, but Boyle said she probably called Hance from there just before 1 p.m. Sunday. That's because Emma Hance, in a brief talk with her father, said they were near the Tappan Zee Bridge and saw exits for Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow. Signs for those places are visible from the pull off.
The phone was discovered Sunday by a motorist from New Jersey who turned it in to the Palisades Parkway police. New York State Police investigators got the cell phone Monday but haven't looked at what numbers Schuler dialed, as they await subpoenas. Police said the family has been cooperative but technically only a subpoena gives them legal authority to get cell phone records.
Hunter Lake Campground owner Ann Scott said Schuler left with her husband, Danny Schuler, a security guard at Old Bethpage Village, late Sunday morning and there appeared to be nothing wrong.
Boyle said Danny Schuler was headed for a fishing trip in another part of Sullivan County and was out of cell phone range when Schuler said she became ill.
Police are awaiting toxicology tests on Schuler's autopsy, hoping the results will provide a medical explanation for the crash. She had no known medical problems.
Police are trying to retrace Schuler's steps after she crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge, but have not heard from any witnesses who saw her before she turned onto the Taconic. Police asked anyone who saw a red 2003 Ford Windstar minivan around midday on Sunday driving or stopped in the area of the Thruway, the Saw Mill River Parkway or the Taconic State Parkway to contact the New York State Police in Hawthorne at 914-769-2600.
With Matthew Chayes