THIELLS, N.Y. — Michael Schechel says he turns to God as he struggles to cope with the fatal wrong-way crash he caused last month on the Tappan Zee Bridge.
He sleeps little, he says, crying over the death of 56-year-old Hannah Ayeh-Brachie of Hillcrest.
"I told him, I begged him, 'Take me. Wake her up,' " Schechel said of a conversation with God.
"I am totally devastated," the 68-year-old Thiells man said during an interview Wednesday with The Journal News, a day after he was discharged from a Spring Valley rehabilitation center. "I will never get over this … I will never, ever live it down. I will remember it until the day I die. It will haunt me every day."
To the victims, Schechel said, "I'm so sorry."
No charges have been filed against Schechel, who was traveling south in the northbound lanes in his new Ford Explorer on July 23 when he smashed head-on into a Nissan in which Ayeh-Brachie was riding with her husband at the wheel. Three other vehicles also crashed.
Schechel suffered a head injury, his discharge records show. His live-in girlfriend and nurse, Luz Hoffman, remains hospitalized with spinal and other injuries.
Schechel laced his words with profanity and masked his emotion with sarcasm as he smoked cigarettes at his kitchen table during the hourlong interview. A bag filled with prescription medication sat on the table. Schechel, a retired bus driver with a clean driving record, said he left a friend's candy store in South Nyack and was returning home when the crash happened. He didn't even realize he was on the bridge, he said.
"I was involved in an accident, killed a woman," Schechel said. "Had no clue I was going the wrong way. … They had two identical signs. One said north. One south. How do I determine which way I was going? Obviously, I wasn't paying attention, so I went the wrong way."
Schechel, who was born in Brooklyn and grew up in the Bronx, said the signs were "so unclear" as he got on the Thruway. He doesn't recall drivers swerving to avoid him.
"I just kept on driving," he said. "I didn't see anything. All I saw was the end result. … It all happened so fast. … I remember the collision. Boom. And that's all I remember.
"The impact was over when I realized what had happened and I didn't know I was going the wrong way at that point either," Schechel said. "I didn't know that I killed a woman. And I didn't know that I almost killed the most important person in my entire life."
He has some recollection of being trapped in his vehicle, along with Hoffman, 56, whom he has dated for five years.
Police said Schechel may have had an anxiety attack prior to traveling the wrong way and has other medical issues, but he said he has no history of anxiety attacks. He is prescribed an anti-depressant and blood-pressure medication. His other medical issues include lupus, asthma and lung disease, he said.
Schechel thinks police will charge him and he fears going to jail.
He'd been planning to move to the Philippines, and now those plans have been pushed back until late September. He hopes he doesn't get jailed.
"I won't survive it physically and mentally," he said.
"My body hurts like you can't imagine," he said. "My mind hurts twice as much."
Hoffman has had at least two major surgeries. Along with spinal injuries, she suffered broken ribs, a broken pelvis and a broken foot.
The family and friends of Ayeh-Brachie, a Ghana native who owned a beauty salon and grocery in the Bronx, are still mourning. Her husband, Newman, 57, was not seriously hurt and is back home.
"The family is focusing on healing," said Clem Yeboah, an in-law. "Hannah did not (come back that night). That's hard. But, at the same time, we need to focus on Newman, who came back, and get him well. In the middle, there are four children ages 20 to 31. They still have to deal with the situation."
The family would accept Schechel's feelings of sorrow at face value, Yeboah said.
"If he has said what he has said, that's OK," Yeboah said. "We have not thought anything about him. We really have not spent any time focusing on what happened that night. … We're not trying to find answers to why because the big thing for us is to get well."
Aside from running two businesses, Hannah Ayeh-Brachie helped other immigrants from Ghana assimilate.
"There is so much outpouring of sentiments," Yeboah said. "She was a giver. She would give of herself to everyone who asked. She helped newly immigrated people to transition to fit into society."