Seven members of a Bronx family spanning three generations were killed Sunday when the sports utility vehicle they were riding in flipped over a Bronx River Parkway railing and plunged about 60 feet onto non-public property of the Bronx Zoo.
Authorities say all seven occupants inside the vehicle died when it landed in the wooded area below the expressway in West Farms at 12:30 p.m.
Police say Maria Gonzalez, 45, was at the wheel of the 2004 Honda Pilot as it was traveling southbound at a high rate of speed. The SUV bounced off the roadway's median, crossed all the southbound lanes and then flew off the parkway, landing upside down in a deeply wooded portion of the southeastern part of the Bronx Zoo.
Killed in the accident were Gonzalez, her parents Jacob Nunez and Ana Julia Martinez, her sister Maria Nunez, her daughter Jocelyn Gonzalez, 10, and her nieces Niely Rosario, 7 and Marly Rosario, 5.
Gonzalez' parents had just arrived in town from the Dominican Republic for a family reunion.
As word of the accident spread, relatives and friends gathered at Gonzalez' Taylor Avenue home in Soundview to cope with the news.
Gonzalez' son said his mother was a strong woman.
"She started working at Fordham University full-time not too long ago to provide for my schooling," Jonel Gonzalez said. "She was a mother of three, a great wife. My sister went to St. Raymond's elementary and her communion was this Saturday."
A relative told NY1 that Maria Gonzalez has intended to go to church on Sunday but decided to skip services in order to pick up her family.
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said authorities were investigating the cause of the crash.
"The driver in the left lane struck the barrier on the left-hand side, and in reaction to striking the barrier was either forced over or made a turn that caused the vehicle to go severely to the right and then fall over the side, into the well, you might say," Kelly said.
The overgrown brush at the crash site made it difficult for emergency crews to reach the vehicle, and one firefighter was injured during the search for victims.
All the passengers appeared to have been wearing seatbelts, according to the police commissioner.
"Sometimes you come across events that are horrific, and this was one of them," said FDNY Deputy Chief Ronald Werner.
"The car was so squished that they had to actually cut it to get them out of it," said Bronx Zoo employee Lloyd Pearson. "My head is still not right because of what I saw."
"In 30 years, I've seen something like this once or twice," said EMS Deputy Chief Howard Sickles. "Everyone was taken back by it, because everybody has a relative. Everybody knows a child, everybody has a grandparent, and you can see the emotion on everybody. It's very upsetting to have happen, something like this."
Firefighters found diapers in the car and feared there may have been another victim. However, police thoroughly searched the area with dogs, helicopters and thermal imaging and found no additional bodies.
The Wildlife Conservation Society said no Bronx Zoo visitors or animals were put in harm's way.
The medical examiner's office told the Associated Press that the cause of death for the victims would be known by Monday.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the family at this tragic time."
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said in a statement that his office will get city agencies to examine the safety of the Bronx River Parkway, as another driver took a non-fatal dive onto East 180th Street from the elevated road in June.
Another car crash in 2006 in the same area of the parkway killed six people.
The southbound lanes on the Bronx River Parkway were closed for nearly three hours, but later reopened to traffic with residual delays.