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Police: Wrong-way driver felt ill before crash

/ Source: The Associated Press

A minivan driver apparently wasn't feeling well before going the wrong way on a suburban New York City parkway for nearly 2 miles, leading to a fiery wreck that killed eight people, police said Monday.

The crash in Briarcliff Manor claimed driver Diane Schuller, 36, as well as her 2-year-old daughter, Erin, and three young nieces. Three men in the car she hit also died.

The minivan belonged to Schuller's brother, Warren Hance. Schuller apparently told him in a phone call about two hours earlier that she was feeling ill, state police said at a news conference. Hance told her to pull over and said he would go to get her. It's unclear where she was at the time or exactly what occurred after that.

Six people called police to say a driver was going the wrong way.

Besides the Schullers, the crash killed Hance's three daughters: Emma Hance, 9; Alison, 7; and Kate, 5. Schuller's son, Brian, 5, was in stable condition at Westchester Medical Center.

The other victims were headed to a family party: driver Guy Bastardi, 49; his father, Michael Bastardi, 81; and Daniel Longo, 74.

The afternoon crash was the second wrong-way crash on the Taconic State Parkway on Sunday. Police also are investigating how a driver in an earlier accident also ended up on the road going against traffic.

The crashes on the parkway north of New York City happened 20 miles apart.

The minivan involved in the fatal crash was traveling south in the northbound lanes when it hit an SUV and then careened into a third vehicle, said state police Investigator Joseph Becerra. The minivan rolled down an embankment and burst into flames.

The minivan's front end appeared to have been almost entirely smashed in, and its shell was scorched and bent. Its driver and four of the five children inside it were killed, Becerra said. They were part of a family from Floral Park and West Babylon, on Long Island.

Rescue effort
A witness to the fatal crash, Katrina Papha, who was traveling north on the parkway to a family barbecue in Mahopac, said she saw the accident in her rearview mirror.

"One car goes this way, one goes that way, up in the air, both of them," she said. "I was crying. I was shaking."

Her brother, Peter Dedvukaj, driving in another vehicle, said he saw smoke ahead and traffic came to a standstill.

"People were getting out to help, shouting, 'We need help! We need help!'" Dedvukaj said. "Everybody said, 'There are kids in the car.'"

He said he and others opened a door of the minivan and "there was a body in front of us." He said they helped pull out the children they could see — two girls, who appeared to be dead, and a boy, who was kicking and screaming.

Hawthorne fire Chief Joe LaGrippo, among the first emergency responders to arrive at the scene of the accident in the tiny village of Briarcliff Manor, about 35 miles northwest of New York City, said the boy suffered significant head trauma.

LaGrippo said that when he got there the minivan was engulfed in flames. He said one of the children was dead and three others were near death.

"We go out quite frequently, but thank God we've never seen anything of this magnitude," LaGrippo said.

He said his unit worked to save the 5-year-old boy. "They saved a life," he said. "He would have never made it, if they didn't do what they had to do for him right there."