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Seven Members of a Family Die After SUV Flips Off Highway Into Bronx Zoo

By  Meredith Hoffman Murray Weiss Patrick Wall and Amy Zimmer | April 29, 2012 1:13pm | Updated on April 29, 2012 8:34pm

The Gonzalez family.  Maria, 45, (who is standing behind her son, Jonel, at his high school graduation) and her daughter, 9 (middle foreground) were killed in a crash on April 29.
The Gonzalez family. Maria, 45, (who is standing behind her son, Jonel, at his high school graduation) and her daughter, 9 (middle foreground) were killed in a crash on April 29.
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Friend of Gonzalez Family

THE BRONX — Seven members of one family, including three children, were killed Sunday when their SUV flipped off the Bronx River Parkway and fell nearly 60 feet into a remote section of the Bronx Zoo, authorities and sources said.

The driver, Maria Gonzalez, 45, was killed instantly, along with her sister, Maria Nunez, 39, seated next to her in the passenger seat; her 9-year-old daughter Joceyln; two nieces — Niely, 7, and Marly, 3, Rosario; and her parents, who were seated in the back of the van, police said.

"I don't want to be alive," said a tearful Juan Gonzalez, who said the family, including his wife's parents, Jacob Nunez, 85, and Ana Julia Martinez, 81, visiting from the Dominican Republic, were coming from church.

"She was a fighter," he said of his wife, in Spanish, standing next to their teenage son and several friends and relatives outside their Soundview home. "She was a very good mother. I'm devastated. I don't want to be here."

All of the victims had to be extricated from the crushed white Honda Pilot and were pronounded dead at the scene, fire officials said.

Police were looking into the possibility of a tire blowout causing the van to lose control, hit a divider and fly over the guardrail, sources said.

"The injuries were quite horrific," said EMS Deputy Chief Howard Sickles. "In 30 years I've seen something like this once or twice. Everybody was taken aback by it because everybody has a relative, everybody knows a child and everybody has a grandparent. ... It's very upsetting."

Though fire officials did not know the van's exact speed, they said it appeared to have been going fast. Officials were investigating whether the passengers were wearing seatbelts.

A zoo spokeswoman said that that no animals or zoogoers were in the area of the crash, near East 180th Street at 12:30 p.m.

"The car fell in the perimeter of the zoo, in a woody area," the spokeswoman said. "No animals were there. No people were there."

Fire officials said the van plunged into an area overgrown with trees and bushes near the zoo's tram yard for its monorail.

"It hit something that caused it to go over the railing and it traveled a distance of maybe 75 to 80 feet before it hit the ground," said FDNY Deputy Chief Ronald Werner. "It fell 100 feet." He also noted that the car was going "at a high rate of speed."

Because of the conditions, officials dispatched several search teams, including police with dogs and helicopters, to extract the victims. One firefighter suffered minor injuries during the search.

"She was a good mother," said Pedro Martinez, an uncle of Juan Gonzalez.  "They were a humble family. They worked hard."

Marjorie Brito, 27, a cousin of the husband, said of the woman, "She was the best mother and a good wife."

"The [daughter] was always hugging her father," said Paul Pombur, 45, a neighbor of the Gonzalez family. "He's got to be destroyed."

Last June, an accident on the Bronx River Parkway near the zoo caused an SUV to fall more than 20 feet into a parking lot after hitting a divider. No one died in that accident.

"In the coming weeks my office will reach out to the appropriate agencies to examine the safety issues on the Bronx River Parkway and to discuss potential solutions, such as road condition and barrier/fence height, to this issue," Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said in a statement.

"My prayers, as well as those of my office and all Bronxites, go out to the families of the seven victims," he added. "Our thoughts are with them as they try to grasp the horrific tragedy that has befallen them."

With additional reporting by Gloria Dawson and Alan Neuhauser.