Deadly Bronx crash sparks calls for safety upgrades

May 1, 2012 5:14:26 AM PDT
There will be a wake Thursday and a funeral Friday for the seven people who died in a van crash on the Bronx River Parkway Sunday.

Their speeding van flew off the roadway and plunged nearly 60 feet into a ravine.

But there have been past problems with that stretch of highway.

The 1907 design of the parkway has been seen as deadly for decades, but ignored. Following this crash, AAA says that stretch of the parkway has narrow lanes, steep hills, tight turns, no breakdown lane and a guardrail that is just too low.

The conditions are said to have contributed to the deaths of at least 17 people.

"There has to be a margin for error," attorney Eric Buckvar said. "There has to be a shoulder. There has to be barriers. There has to be something that makes it just a little bit safer."

Buckvar has sued the city and the state of New York over some of those accidents. In one case, he says a car flipped over the concrete divider and into oncoming traffic.

Although the divider has been replaced, the guardrail has not, and safety experts say the low concrete curb can actually help launch a speeding vehicle right off the road.

In an internal email obtained by Eyewitness News, a Department of Transportation engineer said this almost nine years ago: "Our scope is complete bridge replacement, so we will have a new barrier, full shoulders, better vertical sight distance, etc. All it takes is money."

Three sections of the parkway in the bronx, including one at or near the accident site, are on the state transportation department's 5 percent list, a federally mandated report of locations "exhibiting the most severe highway safety needs."

The driver, Maria Gonzalez, clipped a highway divider and damaged a tire Sunday afternoon before her SUV plunged off a highway and six stories down into a ravine on the grounds of the Bronx Zoo, killing three generations of a family, including three children, police said.

Juan Gonzalez, the driver's husband, blamed the state, at least in part, for the crash.

"He says it's very careless of the state to let that happen," a relative said, translating Gonzalez's Spanish at a funeral home. "There's been several incidents before this. Accidents such as this and they haven't done anything to prevent this."

The state Department of Transportation's only comment was an email message that said, "We are working closely with all agencies involved to determine the cause of this tragic accident."

On the highway, just before the accident site, is a sign that warns of "Limited Sight Distance" on the six-lane parkway, which runs north-south between the south Bronx and central Westchester County.

The accident was the second in the past year where a car fell off the same stretch of the parkway; the earlier accident wasn't fatal. In 2006, six people were killed on the parkway when one car crossed the median into oncoming traffic.

Police said Maria Gonzalez of the Bronx was driving south at 68 mph when she bumped a concrete barrier separating the north- and southbound lanes. With one tire damaged, her Honda Pilot skittered across three lanes of traffic, hit a 2-foot-high concrete curb and went airborne, clearing a 4-foot-tall guardrail.

"It is very strange that there is a curb there," Sinclair said. "You don't put curbs on high-speed roadways because they can serve as launching pads, which appears to be what happened here. A big Honda Pilot flew over a 4-foot guardrail."

He said the guardrail should be higher on an elevated roadway.

Gonzalez was driving well above the posted 50 mph limit, but speeding is common at that point and she may have been simply keeping up with traffic, said New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne. He said there was no evidence Gonzalez was texting, on a phone or had been drinking. Toxicology tests are pending.

"There's no evidence of a mechanical failure," he added.

The medical examiner's office on Monday ruled the deaths accidental. Autopsies showed that all seven died from blunt force trauma.

The NYPD's accident investigation squad found "yaw marks" on the road, he said. He said they indicate a vehicle going perpendicular to traffic.

All the victims were wearing seat belts.

They were identified as Jacob Nunez, 85, and Ana Julia Martinez, 81, who were visiting from the Dominican Republic; their daughters, Gonzalez, 45, and Maria Nunez, 39, and three grandchildren. The children were Jocelyn Gonzalez, 10, the daughter of the driver, and Niely Rosario, 7, and Marly Rosario, 3, both daughters of Nunez.

At the Gonzalez home on Monday, a cousin of the women, Isabel Morel, said the grandparents' bodies were being returned to the Dominican Republic. A funeral for the mothers and their children is scheduled for Friday morning.

Two flower bouquets and seven tall religious candles lined the sidewalk near the stoop of the house. Photographs of Jocelyn and Marly sat behind a grate of a windowsill, one in pink overalls and white blouse, the other sporting a pixie haircut.

"This was supposed to be a time of great happiness," Morel said, adding that the SUV had just picked up the grandparents at Maria Nunez's home to take them to the Gonzalez home for a family party.

In the Dominican Republic community of Manuel Bueno, where the elderly couple lived, their son Antonio Nunez said, "The whole town is really sad."

He said several of his sisters had pooled their money to buy their parents' airline tickets.

Maria Nunez's husband, Juan Ramon Rosario, said he was working at a car wash when he learned of the tragedy.

"It's terrible for him and the whole family," said Andres Fulgencio, a cousin translating for the 34-year-old father of two. "Right now he can't think. He can't feel."

Juan Gonzalez, a livery cab driver, "feels destroyed," a translating relative said. Gonzalez said there was nothing wrong with the vehicle or his wife on Sunday morning.

"I never expected that we would go through a moment like this but we have to keep going," he said. He said he would have to work harder because his wife had just taken a maintenance job at Fordham University to help pay for their son's college education.

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.

Relatives said a fund was being set up for donations toward funeral expenses. Fernando Mateo, president of the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers, contributed $1,000 and said the costs could total $100,000.

(The Associated Press contributed to this article)

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