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Expert: Inadequate guardrails on Bronx overpass where seven died

A man is mourning the deaths of his wife, daughter and five other family members who were killed when their SUV plunged off an overpass near New York City's Bronx Zoo. NBC's Jeff Rossen reports.

The section of highway where an accident sent seven members of a Bronx family flying over a guardrail and plummeting to their deaths has narrow lanes, steep hills, tight turns, inadequate guardrails and no breakdown lane, an auto safety group said Monday.

The Bronx River Parkway "lacks modern transportation engineering features," said Robert Sinclair, spokesman for the American Automobile Association's New York City affiliate. He said it was conceived in 1907 and opened in 1925 as "the first limited access multilane highway in the U.S."

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.

The overpass close to the Bronx Zoo has been the site of serious automobile accidents in recent years, although evidence of neglect stretches back into the 1970s, The New York Daily News reported.

Critics contend that city and state officials failed to act despite the string of deaths, according to the the newspaper.

"I've actually walked that parkway on foot. It is an amalgam of patchwork and Band-Aid repairs. You have plates, and it's like the roadway is in sections. One section doesn’t necessarily meet up with the other," lawyer Jeff Korek, who is suing the city after a 2006 wreck at the same spot that killed six people, told the Daily News.

'I don't want to live': Families mourn 7 killed in Bronx crash

"It’s really a section of roadway that has to be improved," he said. "A proper safety review of this roadway would have prevented many deaths, including these latest."

Family members of those killed on Sunday seemed inclined to agree with Korek's assessment.

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."

Louis Lanzano / AP

Police investigate the destroyed van that plunged over the Bronx River Parkway, Sunday April 29, 2012, in New York. Authorities say the out-of-control van plunged off a roadway near the Bronx Zoo, killing seven people, including three children. (AP Photo/ Louis Lanzano)

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.

Second in past year
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.

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"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.

Msnbc.com staff and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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