A man driving a minivan died early Sunday and the owners of a Spanish restaurant bordering Commack and Smithtown narrowly escaped injury after the vehicle went out of control, hit the building and burst into flames, authorities said.
The driver was pronounced dead at the scene after the crash about 12:35 a.m. on Jericho Turnpike between Siracusa Boulevard and Cornell Drive, police said, adding that speed played a role in the crash. Flames from the burning wreckage set Casa Luis, a restaurant opened 30 years ago at the location, on fire.
The medical examiner’s office will release the victim’s identication when it is confirmed, a Suffolk police spokeswoman said Sunday night.
The restaurant’s owner, Jose Luis Estevez, known as Luis, and his wife, Carmen, fled their apartment above the establishment at 1033 W. Jericho Tpke. as the overturned minivan burned below with the driver alone inside.
“I heard a big boom,” Carmen Estevez said. “I thought it was the garbage. Then I heard another one and I thought ‘This is not garbage.’ ”
After looking out the window and seeing the reflection of leaping flames in the windows of a building across the street, she realized their home and restaurant were on fire.
Police said the 2004 Nissan Quest was heading east on Jericho Turnpike when it lost control and hit the building. The minivan crashed through a concrete retaining wall, police said, and struck a parked Ford pickup before hitting the restaurant and igniting.
On Sunday morning a wrecked sign, toppled tree, skid marks in the parking lot of a business next door, and the partially smashed concrete wall showed the path of the minivan as it careened into the west side of the restaurant. The outside walls of the Estevez couple’s upstairs apartment were pitch black from the flames and smoke and the windows were missing.
Commack Fire Chief John Barry said the force of the crash caused a gas leak in addition to the fire and the gas was turned off.
Pedro Rodriguez, 33, who lives next door, said Sunday he heard the screech of a vehicle braking at high speed before the sound of a crash. Rodriguez said he and his brother went out to see what happened.
“The car was on fire right away,” Rodriguez said.
He and his brother rushed over to get the Estevezes out of the burning building, Rodriguez said.
Carmen Estevez said she heard her neighbors yelling ‘get out of the house! Get out of the house! They hit the gas line!’ ”
Said Luis Estevez, who was jolted from sleep by the sounds of the crash: “I thought I was in a movie.”
The fire destroyed the restaurant’s kitchen but the dining room was untouched. Debris from the firefighting effort lay scattered on the carpet several hours after the crash and fire. The acrid smell of smoke filled the air. Luis Estevez’s insurance agent and lawyer met with him inside the restaurant Sunday morning to talk about filing a claim.
The couple said they did not yet know the extent of damage but were grateful they were not injured.
“I give thanks to the Lord,” Carmen Estevez said.
Luis Estevez said he plans to reopen the restaurant. He and his wife emigrated from Spain and served Spanish cuisine from their native region of Galicia. Estevez continued to cook in the restaurant. His wife said she retired and now takes care of their grandchildren.
“We sacrificed for years and years and then this happens,” Carmen Estevez said. “I just can’t believe it.”
Because firefighters were already at another fire nearby when called to the scene, Barry said the restaurant was likely saved because it didn’t take much time for firefighters to respond.
Barry said the Kings Park, Commack, East Northport and Smithtown fire departments responded to the scene.
Detectives are asking anyone with information on the crash to call the Fourth Squad at 631-854-8452.