By Jim Fitzgerald
BRIARCLIFF MANOR, N.Y. — Authorities are trying to determine how a woman driving a minivan carrying two of her children and three young nieces got onto a suburban parkway heading in the wrong direction, leading to a fiery crash that killed eight people and left a 5-year-old boy severely injured.
The afternoon crash in which the 36-year-old mother, her daughter and nieces died was the second wrong-way crash on the Taconic State Parkway on Sunday. Police also are investigating how a driver in an earlier accident also ended up on the road going against traffic.
The crashes on the parkway north of New York City happened 20 miles apart.
The minivan involved in the fatal crash was traveling south in the northbound lanes when it hit an SUV and then careened into a third vehicle, said state police Investigator Joseph Becerra. The minivan rolled down an embankment and burst into flames.
The minivan's front end appeared to have been almost entirely smashed in, and its shell was scorched and bent. Its driver and four of the five children inside it were killed, Becerra said. They were part of a family from Floral Park and West Babylon, on Long Island.
The children who died were girls ages 2, 5, 7 and 9. The fifth child, a boy, age 5, was hospitalized.
The minivan's driver was the surviving child's mother, and the other children were her daughters and nieces, Becerra said.
A witness to the fatal crash, Katrina Papha, who was traveling north on the parkway to a family barbecue in Mahopac, said she saw the accident in her rearview mirror.
"One car goes this way, one goes that way, up in the air, both of them," she said. "I was crying. I was shaking."
Her brother, Peter Dedvukaj, driving in another vehicle, said he saw smoke ahead and traffic came to a standstill.
"People were getting out to help, shouting, 'We need help! We need help!'" Dedvukaj said. "Everybody said, 'There are kids in the car.'"
He said he and others opened a door of the minivan and "there was a body in front of us." He said they helped pull out the children they could see - two girls, who appeared to be dead, and a boy, who was kicking and screaming.
Hawthorne fire Chief Joe LaGrippo, among the first emergency responders to arrive at the scene of the accident in the tiny village of Briarcliff Manor, about 35 miles northwest of New York City, said the boy suffered significant head trauma.
LaGrippo said that when he got there the minivan was engulfed in flames. He said one of the children was dead and three others were near death.
"We go out quite frequently, but thank God we've never seen anything of this magnitude," LaGrippo said.
He said his unit worked to save the 5-year-old boy. "They saved a life," he said. "He would have never made it, if they didn't do what they had to do for him right there."
Three men from Yonkers in the SUV were killed, Becerra said. Two people in the other vehicle hit by the minivan were hospitalized.
Earlier Sunday, five people were injured in a collision between two vehicles, one of which was headed north in the parkway's southbound lanes. That accident occurred about 20 miles north of the fatal crash.
The scenic Taconic State Parkway winds north about 100 miles from Valhalla, in Westchester County, to East Chatham, in Columbia County. It was built in stages beginning in the early 1920s, initially as an extension of the Bronx Parkway from New York City to the Bear Mountain Bridge.
Most of the parkway's entry points have ramps that drivers use to merge into traffic. But some sections of the parkway have crossroads with traffic lights or stop signs where drivers can turn into either the northbound or southbound lanes.
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Police on Sunday said they hadn't yet determined why either driver was going in the wrong direction or where they entered the parkway.