Four people -- three of them Party City employees -- died and another eight were hurt, some of them severely, when a shuttle van with a dozen aboard flipped over in the center median of New Jersey's Palisades Interstate Parkway early Friday, authorities and the company said.
Highway police responding to a call about a southbound incident in Englewood Cliffs found a mangled Ford cargo van with New York plates flipped on its left side in a wooded area off the span around 1:30 a.m. Several people were trapped, they said.
Emergency crews had to extricate them from the vehicle. Its roof had been shorn off, its back windows smashed, but it wasn't clear how much of the damage happened as a result of the accident and how much may have been part of the rescue effort.
"Injuries range from minor to severe. Witnesses inside the vehicle said that the driver appeared to be having a medical emergency just prior to the accident when he left the left side of the road," Lt. Raymond Walter of the Palisades Interstate Parkway Police said.
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Police say the four people who died at the scene had suffered severe trauma. The driver, identified by police as 54-year-old George Massey Jr. of the Bronx, was among the dead. Officials said no one was wearing seat belts.
Eight victims were taken to hospitals, some with severe head trauma and others with minor complaints, officials said. It wasn't clear how many survivors had life-threatening injuries early Friday. The shuttle was transporting factory workers from the Amscan Distribution Center in the Orange County town of Chester to New York City.
Party City confirmed it lost three employees.
"It is with heavy hearts that we can confirm our Chester Distribution Center team suffered the loss of three valued team members early this morning," the party company said in a statement Friday. "We are deeply saddened to hear of the tragic car accident that occurred and offer our most heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of those affected. We pray for the recovery and healing of the additional team members injured in the accident."
A spokesperson said the van is not owned or operated by the company, but did not provide further details.
It wasn't clear if everyone else aboard worked for the same company. Family members of two women who had been on the van said it was transporting workers from the Chester factory of a major party goods manufacturer to Manhattan's Inwood neighborhood, where workers were set to be dropped off at an employment agency.
Clara Estrella had recently immigrated from the Dominican Republic with her sister. Her cousins confirmed the 49-year-old was one of the four victims killed in the mangled Econoline shuttle van.
"She was a beautiful person. She came over here to have a better life," the victim's cousin, Nathaly Paulino, said. "I used to give her everything I had to giver her because I loved her so much, and now she's not here no more."
Paulino said her cousin was the star of their big family. Estrella and her sister worked together, and both were in the ban on their way home overnight. The sister was hurt in the crash, but the extent of her injuries was not clear. She was being treated at Hackensack University Hospital.
The cousin added that workers were told they had to take the shuttle back and forth, saying that in the agency's application, it states workers were required to do so. She also said there had been issues in the past with employees getting home.
"This bus always has a problem. They're supposed to get home at 11 (p.m.), sometimes they get home at 4 in the morning. The bus runs out of gas, or it gets lost — it's always something with these vans," Paulino said. "It's unacceptable, it needs to stop. If you're working for someone, you should be able to get there how you want."
Parkway Police later identified the two other passengers who died in the crash: 60-year-old Jose Luis Romer Munoz, of the Bronx, and Candida Frias, who was from the city and would have celebrated her 60th birthday on Saturday.
The Bergen County Prosecutor's Office referred all questions pertaining to the investigation to the Palisades Parkway Police Department.