"When something this terrible happens, your brain simply can't process it-or at least mine couldn't," writes Jackie Hance, two years after she lost her three young daughters in a bizarre car collision that made national headlines. "For weeks after the accident I'd wake up thinking it was that Sunday again and that the girls were heading home. And every day my husband or one of my friends would have to tell me the awful news all over again."
The July 26 events surrounding the collision, that killed eight people, including Jackie's daughters -Alyson,7, Katie, 5, and Emma, 8- remains a mystery and the subject an upcoming HBO documentary, airing two years to the day that Jackie lost her children. Now Jackie, who has not seen nor sanctioned the film, decided to tell her own side of the story in the August issue of Lady's Home Journal. Hers is one of unimaginable grief.
Diane Schuler, Jackie's sister-in-law, was driving her two children and, three nieces home from a camping weekend upstate, when she drove the wrong way down the parkway.
"Then came the conversation that I replay in my head a dozen times a day," writes Jackie in the magazine, available on newsstands Wednesday. "On the drive back home, Emma, our oldest, called us from the car and said, 'Something is wrong with Aunt Diane.' I heard other children crying in the background and then the phone cut out. Warren called back immediately and when he spoke to his sister, she didn't sound right. He told her not to drive-to pull over right away. We thought she was having a stroke. He got Emma on the phone to describe exactly where they were. I stayed home and called 911; Warren raced off to try to find them."
But my then, Diane, her daughter Erin, and Jackie's three daughters were gone, as were the three men in the SUV hit by Schuler's car. Only Diane's 7-year-old-son, Bryan, survived the crash.
"He was in the car, the last person to see and hear my girls. I have so many questions, too many for a little boy to answer. I have to be able to trust myself around him and right now I don't," writes Jackie. "I want to reach out and hug him and at the same time try to shake answers out of him, answers he doesn't have. So for now, I stay away."
After receiving initial toxicology reports suggesting Diane had twice the legal blood-alcohol limit and had smoked marijuana, Jackie and her husband Warren, Diane's sister, severed ties with the Schuler family. But questions still remain about what happened only minutes before Emma's frightened phone-call. The HBO Documentary, which was done with Diane's husband Daniel's permission, raises questions about the toxicology reports, Diane's sobriety and the last images of her seen on rest stop cameras. Two years after the fact, the evidence confounds as to how or if Diane, described as a loyal and trustworthy mom, even in Jackie's own words, ended up inebriated on the road.
"When something like this happens, you want to be able to hate someone. When I see the misery in Warren's eyes, I know what he's thinking. It was his sister who did this, his sister who destroyed our lives," she writes. "I can't blame him for her actions. And since Diane's not here, I can't take out my anger, my confusion or my heartache on her. There's no one left to hate. And anyway, we both loved her very much."
But the tragedy has fractured their relationship with Diane's husband Daniel and put their financial stability in question. "The relatives of two of the people who died in the SUV (the one Diane hit head on) were bringing a lawsuit against Warren. The car Diane drove was my minivan, which was registered in Warren's name. By some horrible irony, Warren could be taken to court. While everything that mattered was already gone, everything that remained could still be taken."
Despite the tests on their marriage over the past two years, Jackie and Warren have stuck with each other. "I am holding on to my husband and to the idea that we can survive this. But I have to admit that it's not easy to do."
After the accident, Jackie found it difficult to function, haunted by memories of her daughters during even the most basic activities. "I used to love to cook, especially with the girls. I can still hear Alyson bounding into the kitchen, saying, "Yummy, Mommy! What smells so good?" The memory was so strong that after the accident I stopped cooking completely. Maybe someday I'll be able to try again."
Slowly, Jackie and Warren are rebuilding their strength, developing The Hance Family Foundation, a community-centered non-profit aimed at boosting young girls' self-esteem. It was a way of keeping their daughters' memory alive. More recently, Jackie received IVF treatment and got pregnant right away. Now she and Warren are expecting their fourth child in the fall. Despite her gratitude, Jackie has reservations-fears even.
"I want to be excited, but I know how random life can be, and how unfair," she writes. "However much we try to protect our children, the worst can happen."