Rock Center   |  April 26, 2013

Family ‘crumbled’ when they learned of fatal wrong-way crash

In an exclusive interview with NBC News’ Ann Curry, Jackie and Warren Hance describe the moments they learned about the loss of their three daughters in a fatal car crash that killed eight people. The girls’ aunt drove the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> heard about it defied explanation. a young mother, driving a minivan home from a camping trip , speeding down the wrong side of a divided highway with her own children and three nieces in the car. the crash that resulted killed a total of eight people. tonight, the parents who lost their little girls speak for the first time with ann curry . what they have endured is the basis of a new book called "i'll see you again." tonight they talk about what they learned about surviving grief.

>> reporter: they were jackie and warren hance's three excited little girls , about to embark on a big adventure.

>> i love you all.

>> reporter: emma 8, the oldest dreamed of becoming an actress.

>> she's a lot like me. she wanted everything perfect. very, very good big sister .

>> reporter: allison, 7 a free-spirited artist, was born with a smile on her face.

>> make a silly face.

>> she could make anybody happy at anytime and it was impossible to be sad around her. it really was.

>> reporter: and katie the youngest at age 5.

>> i did it, daddy!

>> she just looked at her big sisters and wanted to do everything they did. sometimes it was you are only 2. you can't do what they are doing right now, but she still tried.

>> reporter: in july of 2009 , jackie , a 38-year-old stay at home mom and her husband warren, a real estate appraiser were packing their daughters off with her sister diane , her husband danny and their two young children on a weekend camping trip .

>> we had been packing since tuesday. they were looking forward to it a lot. it was going to be a forever trip.

>> reporter: that they would forever remember.

>> uh-huh.

>> reporter: it was a two hour drive from their home on long island.

>> i loved it. they were going to do things they normally didn't do, fish, boating, really camping.

>> reporter: though she was missing her girls jackie felt confident that with her sister diane they were in safe hands.

>> i had known her 20 years, back then 16 years. she was a nanny for i think a good eight years. i went to her for advice. she knew more about babies than i did.

>> reporter: diane schuller had her hands for, working as an executive at a cable company and mothering her children 5-year-old brian and 2-year-old erin but she always remembered her nieces on holidays and birthdays with a gift or card. jackie said she loved diane like a sister.

>> the girls loved her. she was a strict aunt but a fun aunt.

>> reporter: as the weekend came to an end, on sunday morning jackie eagerly awaited the girls ' homecoming. soon after 9:00 a.m ., diane got the three girls and her own two children th children in the minivan and took off.

>> how was her demeanor?

>> fine.

>> anything in the conversation that makes you wonder if anything was askew or wrong?

>> god no. huh- huh-uh. no.

>> reporter: 40 minutes later, now close to 1:00 the phone rang. it was emma sounding alarmed.

>> mommy, something is wrong with aunt diane .

>> and she was crying.

>> uh-huh. i didn't understand. i said what do you mean? i could hear allison crying in the background. i said let me talk to aunt diane . so diane got on the phone. she kept saying they are playing and having fun . she didn't sound right.

>> diane didn't.

>> no. she wasn't making sense.

>> confused and alarmed jackie stayed home to call the police and warren and his father raced to tarrytown, the last place that emma said they were. when they finally got there, diane and the children were nowhere to be found. in their search, warren and his father stopped at the police station .

>> the trooper was out in the parking lot waiting for me and he said you need to get in my car. i said i'll just drooichlt and he said no, i'm going to drive you over there and i turned to my father and said this is bad. an he said, yeah, i know.

>> reporter: the trooper drove them to a local hospital where police told them what they couldn't bear to hear. diane , they said, had driven the minivan in to oncoming traffic with all of the children on board on new york's taconic parkway . they said she hit an suv head on. the minivan exploded in to flames. all three sisters, diane , her daughter as well as the three men in the suv , michael and guy and daniel were killed. that's eight people lost. only diane 's 5-year-old son brian survived.

>> i just crumbled. i lost it.

>> reporter: jackie was anxious at home waiting for word when the phone rang. a family friend picked up.

>> he said it's warren. i just saw him his head drop and then drop again and again. and i just stared at him. and he came over and said they are all gone. i ran out the door.

>> screaming. four days later at the funeral for diane and the children, jackie was astonished at warren's courage, giving the eulogy for the family.

>> love your children. cherish your children. kiss your children. and don't ever forget.

>> reporter: jackie slid beyond despair.

>> they were my life. they were the reason i was put her, i believe. because they really, just really amazing girls . it changed everything. she admits she became detached from reality.

>> i'd wake up from a nap or a deep sleep and go in the girls ' room and are they here, where did they sleep?

>> reporter: her close friends melissa, isabelle an janine stayed near jackie around the clock.

>> she would call in the middle of the night where are the girls ? do you have them at your house? and you would have to go through the process, no sweetheart and show the papers or explain to her.

>> reporter: it seemed it couldn't get any worse. but then five day air force the funeral came the toxicology report. it said diane 's blood alcohol level was double the legal limit. the medical examiner said she consumed at least ten drings and there was marijuana in her blood. and there were more details from investigators that only added to the mystery. 30 minutes after leaving the camp site , police determined, diane stopped to feed the children at mcdonald's. 45 minutes after that, she stopped at a convenient store. she is seen here in the security camera footage. she reportedly asked for pain medication, but left without buying anything. it was soon after that when diane turned on to the wrong side of the taconic parkway , spooking other drivers.

>> state police , 911.

>> yeah, you have a guy driving south on northbound taconic parkway .

>> reporter: they said that her minivan was moving at 85 miles an hour for two miles in to oncoming traffic, just missing other vehicles.

>> he's going like a bat out of hell .

>> before colliding with the suv . in the wreckage of the minivan, police find broken bottle of vodka.

>> i couldn't believe it. my heart stopped again. and i was dumfounded.

>> reporter: as all of these details begin to emerge, jackie 's grief turned darker.

>> i just was angry. i wish that it was just a regular car accident . it was killing me, the anger. i didn't know how to deal with it.

>> reporter: not only anger at the accident, anger at herself.

>> i'm their mom and supposed to protect them. and i didn't. it's just hard to not blame yourself.

>> reporter: you expected diane to protect your kids?

>> uh-huh.

>> reporter: and now you are blaming yourself.

>> i'm not blaming myself for the accident. i'm blaming myself for them not being here. it's just -- they are not here and i'm their mom.

>> reporter: jackie fell in to a dark well of grief and doubted she could ever climb out of it. she punished herself, questioning how well she really knew her sister-in-law and she could not accept that she had lost all three of her children. but in the midst of her suffering there was suddenly a ray