July 26, 2011— -- Two years after the horrific Taconic State Parkway crash, the husband of Diane Schuler is suing New York State and the father of three nieces who were killed when the Long Island mother drove the wrong way, slamming head-on into another vehicle and killing eight.
Daniel Schuler, who has asked that his wife's body be exhumed, has maintained all along that she was a perfect wife and mother with no alcohol problems. Diane Schuler and her 2-year-old daughter also died in the accident.
He alleges the highway was badly designed and inadequately sign-posted, which enabled his wife to drive the wrong way into traffic, according to the New York Post. He also alleges in his lawsuit that the Chevy Trailblazer the family had borrowed from his brother-in-law Warren Hance, was faulty.
"It's a terrible tragedy," Tom Ruskin, who was hired by the Schulers to investigate the accident, told the Post. "His wife was drunk and high at the time of the accident that killed seven innocent people. You don't keep suing people...If she was alive today, Diane would likely be in jail."
Today marks the two year anniversary of the tragedy, and now, an HBO documentary, "There's Something Wrong With Aunt Diane," asks if Diane Schuler's obsessive perfectionism may have contributed to the crash. Friends and family tell filmmaker Filmmaker Liz Garbus that in every aspect of her life, Diane Schuler strived to be the best.
The film, which will air every Monday night until Aug. 15., portrays the 36-year-old "super mom" as a control freak haunted by a dark past: Her mother abandoned Schuler when she was 9.
Garbus attempts to piece together the psychological puzzle of Schuler's state of mind before the 2009 accident, one of the worst in state history. Only her son Bryan, then 5, survived.
People who knew Schuler said she was a stable, devoted and trustworthy mother, not someone who would put others, especially her children, at risk.
But toxicology reports at the time revealed a blood-alcohol level of 0.19 -- the equivalent of 10 drinks -- and considerable levels of THC from smoking marijuana.
The accident made national news. Schuler was canonized by her family, who challenged the autopsy results, and vilified by those who called her a reckless drunk and even a "scumbag."
The film follows Schuler's husband, Daniel, and her sister-in-law, Jay Schuler, who for two years have been trying to clear her name, insisting a medical emergency was to blame.
It strips away Schuler's perfect veneer. Those closest to her say she hid the pain of her mother's abandonment. Although her three brothers reconciled with their mother, Schuler refused, according to her husband.
"She never complained about it," one friend said on camera. "She never talked about it, almost like she wasn't even there."
Instead, Schuler earned a top salary as a cable-TV executive, was a take-charge wife, raised two impeccably dressed children and volunteered enthusiastically at their school.
"It's a kind of fundamental perfectionism, so that life becomes unbearable in some ways," forensic psychiatrist Dr. Harold Bursztajn told ABCNews.com. "After the fact, we can see the breakdown patients suffer when they feel they have to be great, otherwise they are no good.
"For someone like Diane, they try harder and harder and they will never be satisfied with being good enough," he said. "But that was an impossible way to live and to be human at the same time."
Friends said she smoked marijuana at night to help her sleep but that Schuler showed no signs of alcoholism. Indeed, they said, she hardly drank.
Bursztajn, a clinical psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School who was interviewed for the film, said when trauma doesn't heal, it can have catastrophic consequences.
"Diane could not forgive her mother or herself," he said. "She compensated in the present for what she lost in the past.
"It's a puzzle," Bursztajn added. "She was not someone who was mean. Not someone who was bad. And yet look what happened. It was a profound catastrophe."
For the first time, filmmaker Garbus interviews eyewitnesses, first responders, investigators and medical and psychiatric experts and draws on surveillance footage, family photos, news clips and expert testimony to explore events surrounding the crash to see how things went so wrong.
Diane Schuler Showed No Signs of Alcohol
On July 26, 2009, Schuler left Hunter Lake Campground in upstate New York with five children and headed back to their home in Long Island. Her husband took the family dog in his pickup truck. The campground owner said nothing seemed amiss.
Schuler had borrowed the red minivan from her sister-in-law, Jackie Hance, and had promised to get her niece back for a ballet lesson.
Hance, 40, lost all three of her daughters in the crash, and yet she recently told Good Housekeeping magazine that Schuler was "the most responsible person I knew." She refused to participate in the documentary and is now pregnant after in vitro fertilization, due in September.
"People always ask how I feel about Diane," Hance told the magazine. "You can't imagine how complex that question is. How does a person go from being like a sister to me -- adored by my girls and cherished by my husband -- to being the one who ruined our lives?
Schuler stopped at a gas station looking for fast-acting pain medication -- perhaps for an untreated tooth abscess, the film speculates -- and might have tried to kill the pain with a bottle of vodka that the Schulers carried with them on vacation trips.
Witnesses said her van weaved in and out of lanes traveling down the New York State Thruway and the cries of children were heard in the car in a telephone call to her brother along the way.
Minutes before the deadly crash, Hance's 8-year-old daughter, Emma, had called her mother to say, "Something's wrong with Aunt Diane."
Schuler entered the wrong side of the Taconic Parkway, then drove at 70 mph for nearly two miles. Witnesses said her driving was not erratic but rather she drove deliberately down the fast lane with determined eyes.
Eventually, she slammed head-on into another vehicle, killing Guy Bastardi, 43, his father Michael Bastardi, 81, and a family friend, Daniel Longo, 72.
In the film, Bastardi's daughters say they have forgiven Diane Schuler, but not Daniel and Jay Schuler for denying her guilt in the crash.
Schuler's son, Bryan, who suffered a severe head injury that left him with ocular nerve palsy, has said he has no memory of the accident. He tells his aunt repeatedly, "Mommy's head hurt. She couldn't see" and, "I flew out of the car like superman."
It was Schuler herself who had appeared to have super-human powers. "She seemed to be good at whatever she attempted," her friend, Sue Troccoli, said. "She was very good at her job, and she was a take-charge person, too."
Self-Medication Led to Disorientation
Psychiatrist Bursztajn said Schuler was the worst kind of perfectionist who learned to self medicate. Had she sought help, the tragedy might have been averted.
"The problem is, it doesn't work for very long," Bursztajn said. "Eventually, the fear, the shame and the humiliation come back."
The day of the accident, Schuler likely was stressed about running late and tried to ease her physical pain with alcohol and marijuana, which led to disorientation and dissociation. "She lost touch with reality," he speculated.
Most experts ruled out suicide. "That is not consistent with who Diane was," Bursztajn said. "She was not someone who gave up."
Dr. Carol Bernstein, associate professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, said, "the reality is anybody can snap."
"A psychiatric disorder can affect all of us, even people who look like they are functioning very well."
She cites the case of Leshanda Armstrong, a New York mother of four who drove her minivan into the frigid waters of the Hudson River in April, killing herself and three of her small children.
"People said she seemed so normal," Bernstein said. "People have an idea in their heads that in order for someone to engage in bizarre behavior or take a risk or harm people, or attempt suicide, or, God forbid, even what's going on in Norway, it means they are weird or strange, and people distance themselves."
She warns that not all those who have upsets in life will end up like Schuler. But many are too embarrassed to admit psychic pain.
"Someone may be struggling and not feel they can tell the people they love until they are pushed to the point," Bernstein. said "People suffer in silence."
The lesson learned, she said, is that mental problems should not be stigmatizing and those who struggle should "feel free to communicate so we can see warning signs.
"When people feel burdened and depressed and hopeless," she said, "it's not shameful to reach out and get help."