JAMAICA — A late-night drive turned into a nightmarish accident scene after a Mercedes SUV smashed into a concrete pillar and flipped, killing five of the eight passengers, including two young children.
Friends and family of the victims, who had been coming back from a warm, festive gathering celebrating the passengers' Nigerian heritage, gathered at the hospital where the three survivors were taken. They continued to try and piece together what had happened Sunday, while grappling with the unbelievable tragedy.
"There's still a lot of things people don't know," said the cousin of one of the victims, Evelyn Anyaogu, 68, outside the hospital. "Nobody is coping. We don't know, how do you cope? It's not one death. It's not two, three or four. Five!" she wailed.
The car was headed east on Atlantic Avenue at 3:18 a.m. when it collided with a pillar that supports the AirTrain tracks near the Van Wyck Expressway, police said.
The impact flipped the SUV over and flames shot out of the hood of the vehicle, witnesses said. The FDNY responded immediately, but by the time the fire was put out, five people were found dead, cops said.
Two children, an 8-year-old girl, and a 9-year-old boy, had been thrown from the car, as well as three women, whose ages were not known immediately, police said.
Three of the vehicle's occupants survived the crash, the FDNY said, one in serious condition. A 45-year-old woman, who police said had been driving, a 26-year-old man, and a 7-year-old boy were all brought to Jamaica Hospital with varying levels of injury, police said.
Anyaogu said her cousin, Nnenna Obioha, in her 50s, had come from Michigan for a nearby convention run by a U.S.-based group, the Arondizuogu Patriotic Union, where expatriates from the village of Arondizuogu gather annually from all over the nation. She said Obioha was one of the women who died, after leaving the celebratory gathering.
"I can't believe something happened to her," she mused. "We were in the same place. We ate, we talked...Everything went fine. Why?"
Her cousin, she said, had been the founder of a group called the Arondizuogu Daughters Association, which did fundraising and outreach for people back home. The convention drew at least 200 people, she said.
"She has the best heart in the whole world. She knows the phone number of everybody," she said, recalling late nights of phone conversations with the victim. "Why did this thing happen?"
She said the 45-year old female survivor was mother of the two children who had died in the crash, and that the 26-year-old man who had survived had lost his mother in the crash.
A friend of the family who visited the hospital, Inno Chima, added, "the family is very good, very good spirits," after he had been into visit the survivors. He called them "a beautiful family, wonderful family," but added that the local community was reeling.
"Why wasn't our heavenly God watching out for them? We are solemn and downcast. We are mourning," he said.
No criminality was suspected in the crash, and no other vehicles were involved, police said, although the News reported an eyewitness saying the group's SUV had run two red lights and was speeding, and the driver had swerved to avoid hitting the eyewitness's oncoming car.
Identities of the victims were not immediately known or released by police.
Victor Lopez, 66, lives two blocks from where Atlantic Avenue and the Van Wyck Expressway intersect, and said ran out of his house when he heard the crash. "It was like a war zone. Lots of blood, sheets over bodies," he said.
"I heard it from my house. A boom, like explosives," he said. He and another witness said the 26-year-old man appeared to have been the driver.
Lopez said the man was sitting on the side of the road, missing a shoe and sobbing. "He was screaming," he recalled.