The victims included an 84-year-old man and his 80-year-old wife, along with their two daughters — ages 45 and 39 — and three granddaughters, according to police. The youngest was in diapers, fire officals said. There were conflicting reports regarding the ages of the other two girls. Fire officials said they were 12 and 10; according to police they were 15 and 5.
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said that the 45-year-old woman was driving the white Honda Pilot with her 39-year-old sister in the passenger seat. Sources said they were on the way to a family gathering in The Bronx.
All of the victims had to be extricated from the crushed van 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 the driver's husband. "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."
She said the woman's parents were visiting from the Dominican Republic and that the family was on their way to church.
"The [daughter] was always hugging her father," said Paul Pombur, 45, a co-worker of the husband's and a neighbor of the 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.