NEW YORK (AP) — Three generations of a family died in a horrifying crash just a few miles from home when the SUV they were traveling in plunged more than 50 feet off a highway overpass and into a ravine on the grounds of the Bronx Zoo, killing all seven aboard, including three children.
"Sometimes you come upon events that are horrific and this is one of them," FDNY deputy Chief Ronald Werner said shortly after the crash.
Authorities were trying to determine what caused Sunday's accident that killed Jacob Nunez, 85, and Ana Julia Martinez, 81, both from the Dominican Republic, their daughters, Maria Gonzalez, 45, and Maria Nunez, 39, and three grandchildren. Police say Gonzalez was driving, and all the victims were wearing seat belts.
The children were identified as Jocelyn Gonzalez, 10, the daughter of the driver, Niely Rosario, 7, and Marly Rosario, 3, both daughters of Nunez.
"They were a good, wholesome family," a Bronx neighbor, Felicia Lee, 29, told the Daily News.
"The mother always kept an eye on her children. They were typical little girls. They were gorgeous. They were so pretty," Lee said.
The accident was the second in the past year where a car fell off the same stretch of the Bronx River Parkway.
Werner said the crash scene, less than five miles from Gonzalez's Bronx home, was difficult to see, with contents of the van, including a pink schoolbag, strewn about.
"When you see young kids that have been hurt or injured or lose their life, it's always harder than if you find someone that's an elder age," Werner said. "It affects all our units."
The 2004 Honda Pilot was headed south on the Bronx River Parkway when it bounced off the median, crossed three southbound lanes and hit the curb, causing the vehicle to become airborne, continue over the guardrail and plunge 59 feet, police said.
The cause of the crash, which happened around 12:30 p.m., was unclear, and police haven't yet said how fast the SUV was traveling. A city official said the guardrail's height would be one of the safety issues investigated.
"Obviously, the vehicle was traveling at a high rate of speed," Werner said. "It hit something that caused it to become airborne."
Werner said that it doesn't appear that any other vehicles were involved.
Relatives said the grandparents had arrived from the Dominican Republic three days earlier. They had 13 children, six of whom live in the United States. They were headed to a family party when the accident occurred.
Maria Gonzalez, the driver, worked at Fodham University in maintenance.
"I don't want to live any more. I want to die," said her husband, Juan Gonzalez
The SUV landed in a wooded area on the edge of zoo property that's closed to the public and far from any animal exhibits, zoo spokeswoman Mary Dixon said. The vehicle lay mangled hours later, its right doors ripped off and strewn amid the trees along with items from the car. Next to the heavily wooded area are subway tracks and a train yard.
The medical examiner's office said it expected to release the victims' causes of death on Monday.
Last June, the driver of an SUV heading north lost control and the SUV hit a divider, bounced through two lanes of traffic and fell 20 feet over a guardrail, landing on a pickup truck in a parking lot. The two people in the SUV were injured.
City agencies will be asked to look at safety issues on the highway including guardrail height, Bronx borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said in a statement Sunday.
"My prayers, as well as those of my office and all Bronxites, go out to the families of the seven victims," he said.
The wreck was the deadliest in New York City since the driver of a tour bus returning from a Connecticut casino in March 2011 lost control and slammed into a pole that sheared the bus nearly end to end, killing 14 passengers.
In 2009, just north of New York City in suburban Westchester County, a woman carrying a vanload of children drove nearly two miles in the wrong direction on a highway before colliding with an SUV. Eight people were killed, including four children. An autopsy determined that the woman, Diane Schuler, had downed at least 10 drinks and had smoked marijuana as recently as 15 minutes before the wreck.
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