The 10 of them – three adults and seven kids – were piled into the minivan on their way back to Buffalo after a trip to Florida for a wedding.
Their van was cluttered with luggage and blankets and pillows as the travelers headed along the Thruway early Thursday morning bound for home.
Then, the van – for reasons unknown – drifted off the Thruway just east of Silver Creek and crashed into a dump truck parked in the center median, killing two adults in the van and the youngest passenger – a one-month-old baby boy.
That’s what friends and State Police investigators have been able to piece together so far about Thursday’s tragic crash on the eastbound Thruway that has devastated a West Side family.
The dead were identified as:
• Luis A. Arroyo, 27, the driver of the minivan.
• Christieann L. Gonzalez, 29, the front-seat passenger.
• Luis A. Arroyo Jr., Arroyo’s son, who was just born on March 13.
Among the injured were:
• Jessica Gonzalez, 24, the mother of Arroyo’s infant son and Christieann’s sister.
• Jaicob and Jaiden Gonzalez, Jessica’s two other sons.
• Arroyo’s daughter, Adrianna.
• And Yamaris, Alexis and Alexandra Rodriguez, Christieann’s three children.
Adrianna, 6, Yamaris, 8, and Alexandra, 13, were the most seriously injured and are listed in critical condition in the intensive care unit at Women & Children’s Hospital, officials said Thursday afternoon.
Jaicob, 2, Jaiden, 4, and Alexis, 10, are in stable condition in Women & Children’s.
Meanwhile, Jessica Gonzalez is listed in serious condition at Erie County Medical Center after undergoing surgery Thursday afternoon, a hospital spokesman said.
A large number of family and friends gathered at both hospitals Thursday to keep watch over their injured loved ones.
Information about the victims slowly began to trickle out as friends explained the family relationships.
Arroyo and Jessica Gonzalez were the center of a “really close family” that was active in a Buffalo church, one friend said.
The family lived in a duplex with a grandmother and other family members on the city’s West Side, friends added.
They called Jessica Gonzalez a “great mother.”
“It’s shocking,” said Ramon Mendoza, who grew up with her and got to know Arroyo when the couple started dating a few years ago.
“He made you smile,” Mendoza said of Arroyo. “He always had a joke. If you had a problem or needed anything, he’d say, ‘Let’s go get it right now.’”
The family was returning from Florida, where they had attended a wedding, friends said.
In fact, Jessica Gonzalez was able to speak briefly with first responders at the scene, and confirmed the family was returning home from a trip to Florida, said Capt. Douglas Montijo with the State Police on the Thruway.
Investigators were hoping to interview Gonzalez after her surgery to get a better idea of what may have happened to cause the vehicle to go off the road.
The minivan was at traveling speed when it struck the dump truck, leaving investigators to believe Arroyo never tried to brake and may have fallen asleep at the wheel.
“That makes it a strong possibility in lieu of the other signs,” Montijo said. “You have family with blankets and pillows, either traveling overnight or starting out early in the morning. It’s not inconceivable a driver would doze off.
“It’s pretty consistent with driver fatigue,” Montijo added. “We don’t know that for sure until an autopsy rules out any medical condition with the driver.”
The deadly crash happened a little after 7:30 a.m. on the eastbound Thruway in the Town of Brant, about four miles east of the Silver Creek interchange at Exit 58, Montijo said.
The van drifted out of the traffic lanes and hit a state Thruway Authority dump truck parked in the median, Montijo said.
The dump truck was slowly following behind workers picking up trash, the captain said. The worker driving the truck suffered a broken wrist.
Arroyo and his son were pronounced dead at the scene.
Christieann Gonzalez was taken to Lakeshore Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
Also uncertain is whether the infant was in a car seat at the time of the crash, Montijo said.
“We’re not clear on that,” he said. “There were more children than car seats.”
When investigators sifted through the wreckage, they found a booster seat, as well as a car seat, but the carrier didn’t appear to be properly restrained, Montijo said.
Investigators also found that the middle seat in the van had been taken out. “It appears some of the children were just sitting on the floor of the vehicle,” Montijo said.
Alexandra Rodriguez, who suffered severe lacerations and other trauma, was in surgery for about an hour and a half on Thursday said, Dr. Kathryn Bass, director of pediatric trauma at Women & Children’s.
Adrianna and Yamaris also were on ventilators in the ICU, Bass said Thursday afternoon during a press conference at the hospital.
The next 24 hours are critical for the three children, but right now doctors are hopeful, she said.
“The primary difference [between kids and adults in an accident] is children are more prone to have multiple [internal injuries in more places] and that is what we are seeing here,” Bass said.
The three other children sustained less serious injuries and were able to communicate and talk with staff, the doctor said. They were expected to move from the emergency room to general care rooms.
While people stopped at the crash scene to render aid, there were no known witnesses to the actual crash, said State Police Investigator John McCusker.
Anyone who may have witnessed the accident is asked to call State Police at 935-6570.
News Staff Reporter Lou Michel contributed to this report