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Victims in Niagara Falls border bridge crash identified as Western New York couple

In this image taken from security video, a light colored vehicle, top center, flies over a fence into the Rainbow Bridge customs plaza, Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023, in Niagara Falls, N.Y. A vehicle exploded at a checkpoint on the American side of a U.S.-Canada bridge in Niagara Falls Wednesday, leaving two people dead and prompting the closing of four border crossings in the area, authorities said.
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Customs Border Protection
In this image taken from security video, a light colored vehicle, top center, flies over a fence into the Rainbow Bridge customs plaza, Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023, in Niagara Falls, N.Y. A vehicle exploded at a checkpoint on the American side of a U.S.-Canada bridge in Niagara Falls Wednesday, leaving two people dead and prompting the closing of four border crossings in the area, authorities said.

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. (AP) — The two people killed when their luxury car crashed into a border checkpoint in Niagara Falls and exploded in a fiery wreck were identified Friday as a western New York husband and wife whose family owns a lumber business and several hardware stores in the Buffalo area.

The investigation into what caused the 2022 Bentley Flying Spur to race through an intersection, hit a low median and become airborne Wednesday continued, with investigators looking at whether medical or mechanical issues may have contributed, Niagara Falls Police Chief John Faso told local media.

The car slammed into a row of security booths at the Rainbow Bridge and burst into flames.

Police identified the couple as Kurt P. Villani and Monica Villani, both 53, of Grand Island, a suburb on the Niagara River between Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

Online business records and the company website indicate the victims’ family owns Gui’s Lumber and seven Ace Hardware locations in western New York, his family operating the business since the mid-1980s.

“We would like to extend our sincere gratitude to all that extended prayers, condolences and well wishes," the families and the lumber company said in a joint statement released by the Erie County Sheriff’s Office on Friday. “At this point, we are requesting privacy so we may begin the process of healing.”

The wreck prompted widespread concern on both sides of the border, as video and images of what appeared to be the aftermath of an explosion began to circulate online and officials closed the bridge and three other nearby crossings. Authorities investigated for several hours before the FBI's Buffalo office said it found no signs of a terror attack and turned the case over to local police as a traffic investigation.

The president of the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce said Friday that the couple's support for their community was well known.

“They gave from their heart, so they didn’t make a big deal about it,” Eric Fiebelkorn said.

Mike Billoni was with Niagara Frontier Publications in 2014 when he photographed Kurt P. Villani and his son, Kurt Jr., as they dropped off a load of turkeys for a local food drive.

The Villanis were carrying on an annual tradition of donating 250 turkeys begun six years earlier by the older Villani’s parents, Kurt and Gail Villani, Billoni wrote in a news story at the time.

“It was such a wonderful gesture to see the philanthropy of the father passed on to the son, who then passed it down to his son,” Billoni recalled Friday. It was unclear whether the tradition continued.

The eldest Villani died last year, leaving a void in the close-knit business community that has now grown with the loss of the son, Fiebelkorn said.

The Niagara Falls Police Department has said the crash investigation will take time given the complexity.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has described it as “surreal” and said the vehicle was “basically incinerated” with nothing left but the engine and a scattering of charred debris.

“You actually had to look at it and say, was this generated by AI?” Hochul, a Democrat, said at a news conference Wednesday. “Because it was so surreal to see. How high in the air this vehicle went, and then the crash, and the explosion, and the fire.”

About 6,000 vehicles cross the Rainbow Bridge each day, according to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration’s National Bridge Inventory. The short, steel bridge offers scenic views of Niagara Falls.