TARRYTOWN, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — A panic attack may have sent a wrong-way driver straight into a chain-reaction crash on the Tappan Zee Bridge that killed one person and left four others injured.
The wreck happened just before 9 p.m. Tuesday near Exit 10 on the Rockland County side of the bridge.
Police said Michael Schechel, 69, was driving south in a white sport-utility vehicle in the northbound lanes of the bridge when his vehicle slammed head on into a Nissan that was being driven by Newman Ayeh-Brachie, 57.
“At this point, we do not believe that there is any drug or alcohol involvement,” State Police Lt. Richard Mazzone told reporters, including WCBS 880’s Jim Smith. “I don’t have any information as far as why he was going the wrong way. We have speculative information and right now, we’re in the process of investigating that.”
The impact of the crash caused the Nissan to roll over multiple times before it landed on its roof in the middle lane, police said.
A passenger of Ayeh-Brachie’s car, 57-year-old Hannah Ayeh-Brachie, was pronounced dead at the scene, police said.
A third car heading north hit Ayeh-Brachie’s car after swerving to avoid Schechel’s SUV, police said. That car was being driven by 34-year-old Juan Robles, according to police.
Robles’ car was then rear-ended by a fourth car that was driven by Nancy Gallo, 44, police said.
Finally, a fifth car being driven by 40-year-old Thomas Gibson sideswiped Schechel’s vehicle before coming to a stop, police said.
Newman Ayeh-Brachie, Gallo, Schechel and a passenger in Schechel’s car, 56-year-old Luz Hoffman, were all taken to the hospital in serious and critical conditions.
CBS 2’s Lou Young spoke with a witness who saw it all.
“I laid on my horn and he just kept coming right at me,” said witness Chris Evans. “It was kind of like a game of chicken.”
State police investigators believe the fatal mistake may have happened in Nyack, on the Rockland side of the bridge. Two side-by-side ramps are found at the site – and while the one on the right leads to the northbound New York State Thruway, the one on the left leads to the wrong way on the Tappan Zee.
“Not speeding, not aggressive, not coming at me like ‘let’s do this.’ It was like, ‘I’m just going to keep driving,’” Evans said.
Meanwhile, friends and family members of Hannah Ayeh-Brachie were mourning her loss Wednesday afternoon. She was a beloved family matriarch, and the owner of two businesses in the Bronx, including a beauty salon in the Tremont section.
“It’s basically senseless,” said family friend Rich Ankrah. “How could someone be driving on the wrong side of the highway in the wrong direction? It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Evans said he saw the wrong-way driver make the mistake – unhurried, deliberate, and seemingly oblivious.
People who know driver Schechel, of Westchester County, were also horrified. Friends said he suffers from lupus and drives with a nurse.
“He had home care,” a friend of Schechel’s said. “It wasn’t extensive, but he needed it in case something happened. He had oxygen and things of that nature.”
The person in the passenger’s seat told police Schechel suffered a panic attack before the wrong-way run.
State police said drugs and alcohol do not appear to be a factor, 1010 WINS’ Al Jones reported.
As of Wednesday afternoon, no charges had been filed in the crash.
Check Out These Other Stories From CBSNewYork.com:
- 2 Young Girls Dead After Apparent Radiator Steam Blast In The Bronx
- Seen At 11: N.J. Pediatricians Say ‘Troubling’ Trend Against Vaccination Is Driving Patient Dismissal Policy
- CBS2 Exclusive: Giants’ Nikita Whitlock Has Home Vandalized With Hateful Graffiti
- LI, Westchester Residents Concerned About Plans For New Cellphone Poles