as-grand-island-mourns-prominent-business-owners,-police-search-for-answers-in-rainbow-bridge-crash

As Grand Island Mourns Prominent Business Owners, Police Search For Answers In Rainbow Bridge Crash

GRAND ISLAND, N.Y. (WIVB) — Just days after a fiery crash at the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls, police identified the driver and passenger who died and provided new details of the ongoing wreck investigation.

Kurt and Monica Villani, both 53 years old and from Grand Island, were driving a 2022 Bentley Flying Spur when it went over an embankment, flew through the air, crashed and exploded near the Customs and Border Protection building by the bridge, as seen in surveillance video released by the CBP on Wednesday evening.

“It’s one thing to piece together a seen or an intact vehicle, you can go from here. Obviously, that’s not what we have in this situation. That’s the major obstacle right now,” Niagara Falls Police Superintendent John Faso said in a phone interview Friday afternoon.

The Villani Family

The Villani family said in a statement obtained by News 4’s Tara Lynch that they wished to “extend our sincere gratitude to all that extended prayers, condolences and well wishes. We are all deeply touched. At this point, we would request privacy so we may begin the process of healing.” The statement was also on behalf of the Ceccato, Maniccia and Gui’s Lumber families.

The Villani family, including Kurt P. pictured to the left, is widely known across Western New York as the owners of several Ace Hardware locations and Gui’s Lumber, which was established in 1986. The family owns six locations across Erie County, including on Grand Island, another store in Niagara Falls and one in Batavia.

“They’re a local, family-owned business. When you’re local, you have that local touch,” Faso said.

Kurt P. Villani’s father, Kurt M. Villani, died in August of last year. The couple is survived by Kurt’s mother, Gail, and their two children, Kurt Jr. and Mia.

Michael J. Billoni, a friend of the Villani family, said the couple’s death is “a devastating loss to Grand Island and Western New York.”

“I’ve known them for a long time. I was born into a family business like theirs, and I know what it takes to run a business like that,” Billoni said. “I am very proud of how the children have followed their father and grandfather and my heart goes out to the whole family. I know how close they are and how quietly philanthropic they are in the community.”

The Grand Island Chamber of Commerce says the family purchased another plot of land next to their store on Whitehaven Road, which is in the center of the town. While there was no set plan to develop it, the Chamber was looking forward to working alongside the family on this project.

“The Chamber of Commerce have had many interactions with the Villani family and Gui’s Lumber over the years. They are a very generous and community-oriented family,” said Eric Fiebelkorn, president of the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce. “With the loss of Kurt Sr. last year, and now this tragic loss of Kurt Jr. and Monica, it leaves a void in our small town business community that will be very difficult to fill. Our prayers and our thoughts certainly go out to their family and staff. The membership of the Chamber of Commerce will be available to help them in any way we can.”

Faso says he hopes misinformation and rumors about the crash, which are negatively impacting the family as well as the investigation, will stop spreading on social media.

“They’re being affected by this in a big way. It doesn’t help anybody, especially the family, when all these rumors are being posted and going around,” Faso added.

What’s next in the investigation

Officials say the couple was traveling from the Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino, where they stopped for a few minutes before heading toward the bridge. They were traveling to Toronto to see a concert that night.

The Niagara Falls Police Crash Management Unit is handling the investigation.

“They’re sifting through all the data right now and basically, the investigation has just started and it isn’t going to be concluded any time soon,” Faso added. “They’ll look for mechanical issues, weather issues, whether this was a medical event.”

On Friday, investigators and the Niagara Falls Fire Department were trying to recover the car’s black box from the debris that was collected, which will play a key role in the investigation.

“We’re going to be looking at everything. Speed, mechanical issues, whatever information we can get from it,” Faso said.

The department has its own crash reconstruction team that used 3D renderings and other technology to capture the scene in order to determine the cause of the crash. The black box will assist in this part of the investigation.

Surveillance video also played a critical role, helping officers rule out a terrorist attack, which was widely misreported on social media. It also helped identify the vehicle, where it was coming from and who was driving.

The Seneca Nation confirmed that the victims had been at the Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino for a brief time just before the wreck.

“We are cooperating with law enforcement in their investigation into the incident that occurred near the Rainbow Bridge,” a statement read. “We have reviewed and provided information related to a vehicle that stopped at Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino only for a matter of minutes shortly before the crash occurred.”

Police confirm they are also looking into whether a Bentley recall that affected the accelerator contributed to the wreck. This recall by the Australian government lists 2021-2022 Bentley Continental GT and Flying Spur models as the impacted vehicles. There was also an recall posted in 2021 by the Australian government, encompassing all Continental GT and Flying Spur models from 2018-2021.

Erin Bronner, a spokesperson for Bentley USA, told News 4 that the accelerator recall was for right hand drive cars, which the company does not sell in the Americas, and that all of Bentley USA’s cars are automatic. She referred recall queries to the website for the National Highway Safety Administration, which tracks automobile recalls.

“We will work with the authorities quickly as soon as we are contacted and if we can aid in any investigation,” Bronner said.

Faso says he is grateful for the team that helped his department, including the city’s fire department, who ran toward the crash without knowing the intent or cause, in determining what exactly happened on Wednesday. He cited that several federal, state and county agencies collaborated with Niagara Falls first responders, which they do regularly for other investigations. He added he hopes that level of response puts residents’ minds at ease in case a similar incident ever happens again.

The incident remains under investigation and no further details, including a cause, were released by police. Governor Kathy Hochul said Wednesday that there was no indication the crash was an act of terrorism.

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Tara Lynch is a Buffalo native and Emmy-nominated reporter who joined the News 4 team in 2022. She previously worked at WETM in Elmira, N.Y., a sister station of News 4. You can follow Tara on Facebook and Twitter and find more of her work here.

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