A West Babylon woman drove the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway for nearly two miles Sunday afternoon before a fatal crash that killed her, her toddler daughter and her three young nieces, authorities said Monday.
About two hours before the horrific accident, which also killed three people in a second car, Diane Schuler, 36, called her brother and "may have expressed to him she wasn't feeling well," a a state police spokesman said Monday.
The brother, Warren Hance, of Floral Park, told Schuler to pull off the road and he would come to pick her up, police said. Schuler told her brother that she was not sure where she was, though police are not sure if that meant she was disoriented.
"We do not know what caused the operator of the vehicle to go the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway," State Police Capt. Michael Realmuto said.
Schuler was returning home from a camping trip in Sullivan County at 1:35 p.m. Sunday with her daughter and her brother's three children when she entered the southbound Taconic from the northbound exit ramp at Pleasantville Road, police said.
Schuler entered the parkway traveling south and crossed three lanes. She drove the wrong way for about 1.7 miles in the left-hand lane, where her Ford Windstar minivan collided head-on with a Chevy Tracker carrying three men from Yonkers, police said. All three died.
The Tracker collided in the center lane with a third vehicle carrying two people. They were treated and released with minor injuries.
Schuler's minivan rolled down an embankment and burst into flames, police said.
Schuler and all five children - her daughter, 2, and her nieces, ages 5, 7 and 9 - were ejected from the van onto the median, state police said.
The lone survivor of the crash was Schuler's 5-year-old son, Brian, who was taken to Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla with severe head trauma and other injuries, Hawthorne fire department chief Joseph La Grippo said.
The dead children were identified as Schuler's daughter, Erin, 2, and Erin's cousins, Emma Hance, 9, Alison Hance, 7, and Kate Hance, 5.
Emma and Kate Hance died at the scene, police said. Alison Hance was pronounced dead at Phelps Memorial Hospital in Sleepy Hollow.
Autopsies were scheduled Monday, police said.
The three Hance girls were the daughters of Schuler's brother. The minivan was registered to Hance, police said.
Schuler had no history of a serious medical condition and was not on prescription medications, police said.
Brian Schuler was listed in stable condition Monday at Westchester Medical Center, police said. New York State Police investigator James Boyle said the boy underwent surgery Sunday night.
"It's horrifying to pull up and see something like that," La Grippo said of the accident scene. "I was at the Trade Center. This was worse."
Firefighters performed CPR on the woman and children, but were able to resuscitate only the 5-year-old boy.
Boyle said police would reconstruct the accident, a process that will take months.
He said witnesses estimated the minivan's speed at 45 mph before the crash.
"We don't really know why she was driving the wrong way," Boyle said, citing only "a possible medical condition."
The three people in the first SUV - a 73-year-old man, his 49-year-old son and an 81-year-old family friend - were dead when firefighters arrived on scene, La Grippo said.
Firefighters used the Jaws of Life to pull their bodies from the crumpled vehicle.
The two occupants of the third vehicle were treated and released from Phelps Memorial Hospital, police said. The driver had a cut on the abdomen, and the passenger had a cut on the head.
The minivan's front end was obliterated, and its shell was scorched and bent.
La Grippo said he saw no skid marks - evidence of braking - on the pavement.
"I'm just real proud of my people," La Grippo said, adding that two other fire departments assisted. "We lost lives, but we saved one."
As for the victims, he said, "Nothing could have been done."
With Michael Amon, Matthew Chayes, John Valenti and Jennifer Maloney.