She was, in his telling, the perfect woman—perhaps that’s how your mind would work, too.
Three months after the accident, Danny Schuler can’t recall a single negative moment. Their marriage was like one in a storybook. Danny’s thoughts drift back to the modest house they shared in West Babylon, purchased soon after they married, with its good-size backyard that was perfect for celebrating confirmations and birthdays. Danny manned the barbecue, and Diane bustled around, making sure everyone had what they needed, all on the lawn that Danny cut and edged most weekends, while his 5-year-old boy maneuvered a toy lawnmower behind him and his 2-year-old girl shrieked with delight under a sprinkler. Come holiday time, Diane insisted that they do up the whole house. “Get in the spirit,” she’d tell anyone who dragged their feet, and directed Danny on proper placement of the blow-up pumpkins or the Santa Clauses or the Easter bunnies.
Later, I ask Danny, “What did she like most about the house?”
“That we bought it together,” he tells me.
“You guys fit together?”
“Perfect,” he says.
“You always wanted the same thing?”
“Always,” he says. “We got it, we had it.”
And then they lost it. The July 26 accident was the most horrific in memory—the worst in Westchester County in 75 years. For 1.7 miles, Diane, 36, drove a minivan stuffed with kids the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway, finally colliding head-on with an SUV. Diane hadn’t even braked. Passing drivers said she stared straight ahead, her expression serene and oblivious, her hands at ten and two on the steering wheel. Eight people died, including Diane, their daughter, their three nieces, and all three people in the oncoming SUV. Toxicology reports later established Diane’s blood alcohol level at .19 percent, more than twice the legal limit. On the way home from a weekend camping trip, Danny’s wife appeared to have guzzled ten shots worth of alcohol and, the report said, smoked marijuana within the hour. Police found a smashed 1.75-liter bottle of Absolut vodka on the floor of the front passenger seat, which Danny thought was still in the camper behind the TV.
For weeks after the accident, Danny slept in the hospital next to his 5-year-old, Bryan, the sole survivor, who had broken both arms and a leg. Danny kept the TV off. He didn’t need to hear the things people were saying—that he’d ignored the warning signs of alcoholism or, worse, that he knew something was wrong when she left the campground that crisp Sunday morning. From his bed, Danny’s son wanted to know where Mommy was. Danny’s not built for this. Not for the grief. Nor for the guilt. For a minute, he didn’t know what to tell his son. “She’s in Heaven,” he managed, where she deserves to be, though then Bryan wanted to know what Heaven is. It’s where good people go.
“She was just nice, loving, kind, she bought cards for birthdays,” never forgot a one, Danny tells me. Danny lists her qualities. “Reliable, trustworthy, honest.”
“She sounds like a saint,” I say.
“She was,” Danny says.
Another home, another universe. “Diane’s a murderer,” Mike Bastardi’s wife, Jeanne, tells me. Mike’s father and brother Guy were in the TrailBlazer that Diane hit, along with their friend, Daniel Longo.
“Danny didn’t even acknowledge my loss,” says Mike, almost politely.
Jeanne’s the one with no grays in her life; it’s all black and white. “Not even a second have I felt sorry for Danny. This becomes a man you can’t hate enough,” she says.
As we talk, I can’t help but notice a similarity between Mike and Danny and their families. Under different circumstances, Mike might have even found something likable in Danny. Neither family had taken the college route. (“School ain’t for everyone,” says Danny, a night guard at Nassau County parks.) The Bastardis grew up in auto parts. Mike’s father had started a business in the Bronx, and after high school, Mike went to work full time for his father, with whom Jeanne had also worked.
The Bastardis’ business thrived and Mike left the Bronx, which he’d tired of, and he and Jeanne moved upstate to four acres in Warwick, the kind of countrylike place that Danny, a hunter and fisherman, would like. Danny refuses to go to Manhattan and doesn’t even like overcrowded Long Island; in that regard, he’s like Mike’s dad, who was fed up with his hometown, Yonkers, and “all the bullshit there,” as he told Mike.
The bullshit was one reason Mike Sr. used to get in his car and pop over to Mike and Jeanne’s. “Why don’t you call before you come?” Jeanne once asked him, since they weren’t always home. “I don’t care. I like the drive,” he’d said—he would wait in the driveway if they were out.