YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, N.Y. (July 20) -- Gramps wasn't here to see his granddaughter graduate from high school, and a beloved brother who loved Christmas couldn't spoil his nieces and nephews with expensive presents.
A father and his son face the world without the other half of their family, and another man fights illness without his older brother. And perhaps the hardest loss to imagine: A couple spend their days without the three daughters who had been the center of their life.
A wrong-way crash on July 26, 2009, claimed eight lives on a six-lane divided highway as one group headed to a Sunday pasta dinner, while another traveled home after a weekend camping trip.
An SUV carrying 81-year-old Michael Bastardi Sr., his son and a family friend was hit head-on by a minivan driven the wrong direction by Diane Schuler. She was killed along her with 2-year-old daughter, Erin, and three young nieces in a fiery crash about 30 miles north of New York City. Schuler, 36, was later found to be drunk.
The crash, the deadliest in Westchester County in 75 years, devastated the lives of four families, two here in Westchester County, and two across Long Island Sound on Long Island.
Nearly a year after the horrendous wreck, family is still everything to the close-knit Bastardi clan, which lost their patriarch; younger brother, Guy, 49; and a family friend, Daniel Longo, 74, all of Yonkers.
The three surviving Bastardi siblings have held the family together, relying on each other to get through the first year. Their grief, though, is intertwined with anger, as unanswered questions remain about events before the crash.
"When your family's murdered like this, the only way to get closure is to know exactly why it happened," Michael Bastardi Jr. said in a recent interview. "You've got to really get all the answers you can to make some kind of sense of it."
Laughter and Tears
The Bastardi family had been waiting that afternoon for their loved ones to arrive for dinner at the home of Bastardi Jr.'s sister, Roseann Guzzo, in Yorktown Heights, about 40 miles north of midtown Manhattan. They also were going to take their father clothes shopping for their vacation to the New Jersey shore the next month.
They gathered again on Guzzo's back porch here earlier this month and talked about their year. In an interview with AOL News, Guzzo, Bastardi and their sister, Margie Nicotina, laughed at fond memories and, by turns, became melancholy as they described the pain of loss.
"A huge part of our life is gone," Nicotina said.
"Not one day has passed that you don't think about it, and it doesn't hit you," her brother added. "It hits you every day."
The holidays, always big events in the family, were celebrated to keep traditions going for the younger generations and to show them what family is all about. The festivities, though, weren't days that Guzzo, Bastardi and Nicotina looked forward to.
"This year, even though we were together, it definitely wasn't happy," said Bastardi, of Warwick, N.Y. "We had to do it for the kids."
Instead of an extravagant celebration for Guy's birthday on March 20, the family carried "Happy 50th" balloons to his grave and watched, in the cold, as they were carried off in the breeze, Nicotina said.
"That was the most horrible day for me," she said. "It was sad because he was such a great guy."
Christmas was the biggest day of all, when Guy, who was single, would spend the most money on presents like Ugg boots and jewelry. This year, scrolls were made for each of the 10 grandchildren that detailed all of the good deeds done by Guy and Gramps, as he was called. A gift, the scrolls were tied up with red ribbons.
"Even though they're not here now, their legacy will live on through the kids and generations to come," Guzzo said.
And on the Fourth of July, the family was together again, dedicating fireworks that lit the night sky to Bastardi Sr. and his youngest child, and remembering their Independence Day celebration from a year earlier, when they dressed in grass skirts and floral shirts for a Hawaiian theme. It was their last holiday together.
It was hard, also, when they emptied the Yonkers house where Guy and his father lived, and where all of the siblings grew up. The deaths of the father and son came nearly two years to the day after their mother, Rachel, died of an illness. The house is now for sale.
"It breaks my heart that it's going to be out of my family," said Nicotina, who lives nearby.
Wounds Stay Open
Schuler had called her brother from the road before the crash and said she was disoriented, but she ignored his advice to pull over.
For more than a week after the crash, many wondered what could have gone so wrong that Schuler, a cable company executive and mother of two, ended up driving south for nearly two miles in the northbound lane of the Taconic State Parkway.
Stunning news came nine days later, when authorities announced that Schuler had the equivalent of 10 alcoholic drinks in her system and had recently smoked marijuana. A broken vodka bottle was found in the wreckage.
The agony was made worse for the Bastardis when Schuler's husband, Daniel, rejected the autopsy results, saying that his wife was not an alcoholic and that he had never seen her drunk.
Instead, he offered various medical possibilities, including a stroke, gestational diabetes and an abscessed tooth. He has said nothing seemed amiss that morning.
For Bastardi, the comments from Daniel Schuler and his team "kept the wound open."
"You were never at rest," said Bastardi, 53. "You felt like you always had your guard up, waiting for something else to come out."
No criminal charges were filed. The Bastardi family filed a lawsuit against Schuler's estate and Warren Hance, Diane Schuler's brother, who owned the minivan and lost his three girls in the crash.
They want to know what took place as Schuler left a campground in upstate Sullivan County and set out for home on Long Island, five children in the van. Only Schuler's son, Bryan, then 5, survived.
"What happened that specific day that pushed her over the edge and made her do something so reckless?" said Nicotina, 51. "I think Dan Schuler knows the answer."
Daniel Schuler, of West Babylon, could not be reached for comment. His lawyer did not return several messages.
Schuler, a county employee on Long Island, reportedly has paid for studies in efforts to prove his wife was not drunk, but no results have been made public. His son was released from the hospital after about 15 days, but there has been no recent word on how he's been.
Three Girls Gone
The past year has been difficult for Warren and Jackie Hance of Floral Park -- a year when each of their three girls would have celebrated a birthday, needed an Easter dress, prepared for the first day of school.
"Every day is a struggle for them, but it's important they are surrounded by friends and good neighbors," said the Rev. Bruno DeKrem of Our Lady of Victory Roman Catholic Church, where the couple worship. "To lose all your children, it's hard."
The Hances have been active in a foundation created to honor the memory of their girls -- Emma, 8, Alyson, 7, and Kate, 5 -- said its managing director, Bernadette Smith. Created in August, the Hance Family Foundation has raised close to $200,000 to help needy children and fund self-esteem and mentoring programs, she said.
On holidays and on regular days, friends, relatives and strangers have gone online to the Hance Family Foundation and a Facebook page, letting the Hances know the girls have not been forgotten.
A message posted on the foundation website by WJH on June 16 that appears to be from Warren Hance reads: "With Father's Day fast approaching, I can only hope that all of you will always view me as a father. My children are gone, but being a father was always my proudest accomplishment."
The Hances did not return messages. Their lawyer said they won't comment.
"They were hoping it wasn't, obviously, going to heat up again," said lawyer James McCrorie, who also declined further comment.
'A Horrible Year'
Since the death of his older brother Daniel, Joseph Longo has been hospitalized several times with two types of cancer.
"This year was, between my illness and everything else, it wasn't a good year," he said from his home in Cross River, N.Y. "It's been a horrible year."
Longo, 66, lost the brother who watched over him after their mother died, when Joseph was about 15.
"He tried to keep me on the straight and narrow," said Longo, eight years younger than Danny, and "for the most part," he was successful.
Longo thinks about his brother, who used to visit on Christmas and other holidays, and holds "all kinds of memories."
Last month, police announced that both vehicles were exceeding the parkway's 55 mph speed limit. The Bastardis' SUV was going 74 mph; Schuler's minivan was going 85 mph.
Longo said the news didn't change his opinion. "It didn't make her any less liable," he said of Diane Schuler.
He wouldn't say whether he plans to file a lawsuit, despite the lingering feelings. "Am I still angry about the whole thing? Of course I am," Longo said.
Living With Scars
The Bastardis have found strength in family and children and relied on a belief in God to get through the year.
"The scars are always there," said Guzzo, 55, who has three children and stopped working to handle the two estates. "You learn to live with them."
Still, she won't let "something so heinous stop me from living my life to the fullest extent that I can." She's been busy preparing for the happy occasion of her son's wedding next month. "It's almost like having brand-new hope," she said.
Nicotina, a mother of five, cried at the bittersweet moment when her youngest child got her high school diploma without Gramps there taking pictures. She finds comfort in the children she baby-sits in her home, who are 1 1/2 and 4.
"If I didn't have them, I would probably not be able to get out of bed," said Nicotina, adding that her father came by every day and was even called Gramps by the 4-year-old boy she watches.
Michael Bastardi Jr. says his children give him "a lot more to live for." He likes to visit his daughter at an out-of-state college, and he focuses on his son, who is entering sixth grade.
He hopes the years to come will be easier. "It's the anxiety of waiting for all the holidays and all the birthdays and wondering how's it going to be," Bastardi said. "One year passed us, and we kind of got an idea."
On Monday, the anniversary of the crash, a Mass for the five Long Island victims is to be held at Our Lady of Victory, and for the Bastardis and Longo at St. John the Baptist Church in Yonkers.