Family members of three generations -- including three young children -- were killed Sunday after the sport utility vehicle they were riding in drove off a Bronx River Parkway overpass and landed in the Bronx Zoo's transit-storage yard, authorities said.
An NYPD spokeswoman said all seven were confirmed dead at the scene of the 12:29 p.m. crash. Police said they are operating under the theory that the driver was distracted and had been speeding at about 70 mph.
The accident happened as the victims were heading to a party marking the arrival of the family's matriarch and patriarch.
The driver was identified as Maria Nunez Gonzalez, 45, of the Bronx, who went by her middle name of Josefina or Fina.
According to the NYPD and family members, also killed were her daughter, Jocelyn, 10, Gonzalez's sister, Maria Nunez Rosario, 39, and Rosario's two daughters, Marly, 3, and Niely Rosario, 7, all of the Bronx. The elderly couple, the parents of the sisters and grandparents of the children, were Jacobo Nunez, 85, and his wife, Ana Julia Martinez, 81, of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.
The two Marias are two of 13 siblings; six live in the Bronx and seven live in Santo Domingo, relatives said.
The grandparents had come from Santo Domingo for a visit with family three days ago, relatives said. Nunez Gonzalez had gone to pick them up at her sister's house, along with her sister and the children, and had intended to go to a 1 p.m. Mass, when they changed their minds and were headed back to her house instead for a family celebration, relatives said.
Rita Nunez, 38, a cousin, said, "Everyone was so excited to be together as a family. It was supposed to be a celebration. Instead, we are planning funerals."
Another family member, Simon Torres, 53, a brother-in-law of Nunez Gonzalez, said, "Its very hard for all of us. They were wonderful people."
He said Maria Nunez Gonzalez' husband, Juan Gonzalez, had called him Sunday afternoon, concerned because he had not heard from his wife.
"They disappeared," Torres said. "They weren't answering their phones."
When Juan Gonzalez heard about the accident, he got a "bad feeling" and went to Jacobi Hospital seeking information, Torres said, and there was told of the crash.
"He couldn't believe it. He couldn't believe it was his wife and daughter," said Torres.
About 40 family members and friends gathered at the hospital, hugging, crying and consoling each other.
One after the other broke down when they heard the tragic news. One, upon hearing it, sobbed, "Oh no, no, no, this can't be true. Please tell me its not true. . . . Not the babies, not the babies."
The family was in a 2004 Honda Pilot and all wore seatbelts, police said.
An NYPD spokesman said the SUV had been traveling on the southbound Bronx River Parkway when it "shot right off the road." The property the SUV fell into is a Bronx Zoo storage area for its monorail, but it is also connected to a Metropolitan Transportation Authority train yard, the NYPD said.
The SUV, which had been traveling in the left lane, bounced off the median, then veered right, crossed the other southbound lanes, hit a curb and then launched over the guardrail, plunging 59 feet to the ground below, police said.
There was no skid marks to indicate a blown tire, police said.
The SUV landed nearly upside down on zoo property that's closed to the public and far from any animal exhibits, zoo spokeswoman Mary Dixon said. The area where the van landed is secluded, full of brush and there appeared to be no public access to it.
The van lay mangled hours later, its right doors ripped off and strewn amid the trees, along with items from the car. The wreck was removed later in the afternoon.
"The injuries were quite horrific," said Howard Sickles, deputy chief of Emergency Medical Services for Division 7. "I haven't seen anything like this in years."
A firefighter suffered minor injuries while searching for the SUV at the crash site. The SUV "was in an area that was hard to get" at, an FDNY spokesman said.
Adina Cruz, who lives in the neighborhood, said that accidents are common on that stretch of the highway.
"It's terrible," she said. "I heard there were children in there. But the parkway is known for that. It's very dangerous, and people drive very fast."
Ronald Werner, deputy chief of FDNY Division 7, said officials had no information on the cause of the accident.
"It was obvious that the vehicle was traveling at a high rate of speed," he said.
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. issued a statement Sunday about the crash:
"My prayers, as well as those of my office and all Bronxites, go out to the families of the seven victims of today's accident on the Bronx River Parkway. Our thoughts are with them as they try to grasp the horrific tragedy that has befallen them today," the statement read.
Diaz added that his office planned to investigate safety issues and improvements on the parkway, pointing out that Sunday's crash is the second time within a year that a car has plunged off the Bronx River Parkway.
In June, a sport-utility vehicle swerved off the parkway and fell 20 feet to the ground after its driver lost control, injuring the driver and his passenger.
The Bronx Zoo is the world's largest urban zoo and receives 2 million visitors per year.
With Jennifer Barrios, Igor Kossov, Marc Beja,
Ken Schachter and AP