Police say the tanker, hauling more than 8,000 gallons of fuel, collided with the minivan just before exit 18W in Carlstadt around 9 p.m.
The tanker burst into flames that could be seen for miles away, and the fireball stopped traffic in both directions.
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Officials say 45-year-old Yayah Bah was driving the van and was backing out of an EZ-Pass toll lane at the interchange toll plaza when his 2000 Honda Odyssey backed into the path of the oncoming tanker. The force of the crash sent the tanker careening into a concrete barrier.
The 50-year-old tanker driver, identified as Howard Kiefer of Monticello, escaped his burning rig with a minor leg injury.
All nine occupants of the Odyssey, which safely seats seven, were rushed to Hackensack University Medical Center.
Three of the passengers, including two young girls, are in critical condition. Madagbe Sanann, 27, sustained abdominal injuries, while 14-year-old Kadijatu Bah and 8-year-old Isata Bah sustained head and abdominal injuries.
There were five children and four adults in the minivan at the time of the crash. They include boys age 1 and 8, as well as the 45-year-old male driver. The female passengers were the three who are in critical condition listed above, as well as a 4-year-old girl, a 22-year-old woman and a 37-year-old woman.
After a night of repair work and cleanup, the Turnpike's northbound lanes reopened just before 7 a.m. But that was not before crews worked to repave the road, left in ruins by the intense heat and flames.
"We saw the smoke from the firehouse, which is about three miles away," Carlstadt Fire Chief Robert Moore said. "Luckily there were no exposures, no buildings involved. It was just the tanker truck in the roadway...we were able to control and extinguish the fire."
The Port Authority brought in a foam truck to help get the fire under control.