The spray of bullets hit the car 21 times, after the vehicle rammed into an undercover officer and then an unmarked NYPD minivan twice early Saturday, police said. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly would not say if the collisions were what prompted police to open fire.
It was too early to say whether the shooting was justified, Kelly said.
Police thought one of the men in the car might have had a gun. But police found no weapons.
"Although it is too early to draw conclusions about this morning's shootings ... we know that the NYPD officers on the scene had reason to believe that an altercation involving a firearm was about to happen and were trying to stop it," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement.
Kelly said the incident stemmed from an undercover operation inside the strip club. Seven officers in plain clothes were investigating the Kalua Cabaret, and five were involved in the shooting. The gunfire also hit nearby homes and a train station, though no residents were injured.
A veteran officer fired his weapon 31 times, emptying two full magazines, Kelly said. All the officers carried 9 mm handguns.
The groom, who was driving, was identified as Sean Bell, 23. Joseph Guzman, 31, was in the front seat and was shot at least 11 times. Trent Benefield, 23, who was in the back seat, was hit three times. Both men were taken to Mary Immaculate Hospital. Guzman was listed in critical condition and Benefield was in stable condition.
Kelly said there may have been a fourth person in the car who fled the scene.
Three officers, including the officer hit by the car, were treated and released. Another detective remained hospitalized for blood pressure, Kelly said.
A grand jury was investigating the incident. Kelly said none of the five veteran officers had ever discharged their weapons in the line of duty. He has not been able to interview the officers because the district attorney must first complete an investigation, he said.
The undercover officers were inside the club to document illicit activity, Kelly said. With one more violation the club would be shut down, Kelly said.
He said the establishment has a "chronic history of narcotics, prostitution and weapons complaints."
The shooting drew angry protests from family members and civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton.
On Sunday morning, a few hours before a planned noon vigil for the victims, Sharpton told ABC's "Good Morning America" that the volume of shots fired alone raised questions about the police's actions.
"How does one justify 50 shots at unarmed men?" Sharpton asked.
Sharpton went to the hospitals where the men were taken Saturday and afterward held news conferences. At Jamaica Hospital, the civil rights advocate stood with about two dozen members of Bell's and his fiancee's family.
"I will stand with this family," he said. "This stinks. Something about the story being told did not seem right."
Sharpton said Bell and his fiancee had two children, ages 3 years and 5 months.
At Mary Immaculate Hospital, Sharpton said he was outraged to find the survivors handcuffed to their hospital beds. He said Guzman suffered 17 wounds, though it was unclear how many were bullet wounds, and Benefield was shot three times.
"We're not anti-police ... we're anti-police brutality," he said.
The two were unshackled later Saturday and have not been charged with a crime.
Denise Ford, mother of one of the surviving shooting victims, told WCBS-TV correspondent Tamsen Fadal that the men's car hit another vehicle as they left the club after celebrating the groom's impending wedding.
"They made a mistake and ran into a DT car," she said, whereupon she claimed officers exited their car and opened fire.
Bullets pierced another car, a house and a window of a nearby train platform.
Ford blamed what she described as the police officers' over-reaction to the accident: "They're too hotheaded — something needs to be done about them."
Robert Porter, who identified himself as Bell's first cousin, said he was supposed to be a DJ at the wedding. He said about 250 people were invited and were flying in from all over the country. He said his cousin wasn't the type to confront police and that he was "on the straight and narrow."
"I still don't want to believe it," Porter said, "a beautiful day like this, and he was going to have a beautiful wedding, he was going to live forever with his wife and children. And this happened."
In 1999, police killed Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant who was shot 19 times in the Bronx. The four officers in that case were acquitted of criminal charges.
And in 2003, Ousmane Zongo, 43, a native of the western African country of Burkina Faso who repaired art and musical instruments in a Manhattan warehouse, was shot to death during a police raid. Zongo was hit four times, twice in the back.