By Karen Carr Keefe
Senior Contributing Writer
Grand Islanders were saddened to learn that fellow Island residents Kurt P. and Monica Villani were the couple who lost their lives in the fiery crash Nov. 22 at the Rainbow Bridge.
Grand Island Chamber of Commerce President Eric Fiebelkorn had met the Villanis and knew Kurt’s father, Kurt M., who passed away in August 2022. He said they were an integral part of the Grand Island community.
“Their business is undeniably important,” he said. “It’s a family business, near town center – and a hardware store is the heart of every small town. They’ve always been real good community stewards and community members, both in business and the charitable side of things.”
The Villani family 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 one on Grand Island, another store in Niagara Falls and one in Batavia, according to broadcast reports.
Fiebelkorn said, “It’s really hard to imagine … losing two generations of the family business in a year and a half, so suddenly. It’s really devastating.”
He said that, around the holidays, the tragedy hits home. Fiebelkorn said the chamber membership is there for the family if there’s anything it needs.
Town of Grand Island Deputy Supervisor Peter Marston said of the Villanis, “I did not know them personally. We always exchanged pleasantries when we saw each other. They were very generous to the community and were very well-respected. So many seem to be struggling with ‘what happened.’ My prayers go out to their family and friends.”
On Nov. 24, Niagara Falls Police Superintendent John Faso confirmed the identities of the Grand Island couple, who were both 53 years old.
“The incident is currently under investigation by the Niagara Falls Police Department’s crash management unit,” Faso said in an online news release, noting no further details were available at that time.
“The City of Niagara Falls would like to extend our sincere condolences to the families as they deal with this tragedy.”
Just before 11:30 a.m. Nov. 22, the Villanis’ 2022 Bentley went airborne and crashed into a security booth at the entrance to the Rainbow Bridge. According to several law enforcement sources, the driver entered the bridge plaza from the U.S. side of the bridge at a high rate of speed. Eyewitnesses said the vehicle then crashed into the checkpoint structure, resulting in the fire and explosion.
At a 5 p.m. press briefing in Niagara Falls on the day of the accident, Gov. Kathy Hochul said there was no indication of a terrorist attack, as had been speculated in early reports of the crash. She said the accident “led to a high-level anxiety all the way from Western New York to Albany to Washington.”
Michael McDonough, broker associate at Hunt Real Estate, had done quite a bit of business with Kurt’s father and knew Kurt P. Villani, too, as they worked together.
“He always had a smile on his face and was always real nice to people,” McDonough said. “They’re a good family – a tight-knit group.”
McDonough said he thought that, with the car going out of control in a very populated area, Kurt Villani’s actions as a driver may have saved a lot of lives. As the investigation continues, he said, “I think you’re going to find out he was a hero in this.”
He said he was aware of the couple’s charitable work, recently in helping in the effort to rebuild the Niagara Sailing Club after a 2021 fire.
He said Kurt and Monica Villani were also great parents.
The couple is survived by Kurt’s mother, Gail, and their two children, Kurt Jr. and Mia.
The Erie County Sheriff’s Office shared this statement on behalf of the Villani, Maniccia and Gui’s Lumber families: “We would like to extend our sincere gratitude to all that extended prayers, condolences and well wishes. We are deeply touched. At this point, we are requesting privacy so we may begin the process of healing. Thank you.”