The driver of the stretch limousine involved in a crash that killed 20 people in Upstate New York on Saturday did not have the proper license to be operating the vehicle, New York State Police officials said Monday. Additionally, the limo, a converted 2001 Ford Expedition, had failed at least one prior safety inspection and the company that owned it had a record of noncompliance with state and federal requirements, according to officials and public records.
Authorities seized the company’s vehicles Monday, as police investigated whether anyone was criminally liable. A separate safety probe, led by the National Transportation Safety Board, was underway at the crash site in Schoharie, about 30 miles west of Albany.
"We’ll determine if there is any criminal culpability on the part of anyone,” New York State Police Major Robert Patnaude said at a news conference Monday.
Authorities said the limousine company, Prestige Limousine, was cooperating in the investigation. Its owner, Shahed Hussain, was out of the country, officials told reporters.
Federal motor carrier safety records indicate the company had a spotty record: Of five inspections over two years, four resulted in vehicles being taken out of service. The Gansevoort, N.Y.-based company has three vehicles and two drivers, records show, although officials said three vehicles had been seized along with the one involved in the crash.
On Monday New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) criticized Prestige for “putting a failed vehicle on the road.”
Cuomo told reporters the limousine driver had not been licensed to drive a such a vehicle, and that the company would be ordered to cease and desist operations through the investigation.
“I think the owner of Prestige has a lot of questions to answer,” Cuomo said.
Hussain, an FBI informant who worked with the agency on terrorism cases, could not be reached Monday at numbers listed for the company.
NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said among the things investigators will be looking into are the company, the driver, state and federal oversight, and the vehicle and its condition. Typically when SUVs are converted into limos, they are cut in half, stretched and converted. Sumwalt said the vehicle was configured for 19 seats; two up front, a rear-facing seat, a forward-facing seat in the back and seating on each side. Some of the seats had lap shoulder belts, but it was unclear if all did or if passengers were wearing them. In New York, seatbelts are only required for the limo driver and front-seat passenger, he said.
Investigators also will be looking into “human performance” -- the driver’s history and qualifications, conducting toxicology tests and determining whether fatigue was a factor, he said.
Officials urged anyone with information on the lead-up to the crash to come forward, including text messages or social media posts that could she further light on the tragedy.
The limousine passengers, a close-knit group of 17 friends had originally rented “some kind of bus” Saturday to celebrate a friend’s 30th birthday, Valerie Abeling said. Her niece, 34-year-old Erin McGowan, was among those on what was supposed to be a fun-filled excursion to a brewery in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Somewhere along the way, Abeling said, the bus apparently broke down and the limousine was the replacement, she said.
Shortly after the white stretch limousine arrived, McGowan texted Abeling’s daughter to say the vehicle appeared to be in terrible condition.
Still, the group continued southwest on State Route 30. Some 20 minutes later, the limousine came over a steep hill and headed down toward a T-shaped intersection in Schoharie. Witnesses would later recall the limo blowing past a stop sign and plowing into the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store and Cafe at the bottom of the hill, police said.
There, it struck a parked SUV and at least two pedestrians, before becoming lodged in a ditch at the side of the road, police said. The front end of the limo was crushed, forcing the engine into the driver compartment, NTSB officials said, describing the substantial “force and energy” required to create such extensive damage.
The crash killed everyone in the limousine, including the driver and all 17 passengers, police said. Two bystanders also were killed. The scene rattled even longtime investigators, who converged on the site over the weekend to begin trying to reconstruct what happened.
“You have 20 fatalities. . . . That’s very striking," Sumwalt said. “This is the most deadly transportation accident or crash that we’ve seen on U.S. soil since February of 2009.”
He said the aim of the investigation was to determine how to prevent such a devastating crash from ever occurring again, and did not rule out that the probe could shed broader insights on the safety of passenger limousines themselves.
The families of those killed — many of whom were related or were childhood friends — said they are struggling to come to grips with the magnitude of the tragedy.
“It’s tragic. Horrible. I can’t even begin to even explain,” Abeling said in an interview Sunday from Upstate New York, where her family was gathered. “Our lives have been changed forever.”
Abeling said her niece’s new husband, 30-year-old Shane McGowan, had also been in the limousine. The couple married in June and were among a tight circle made up mostly of old high school and neighborhood friends from Amsterdam, N.Y.
“These were friends just starting their lives, getting married, and this is how it ended,” Abeling said. “It’s a tragic loss of beautiful souls.”
In an interview with ABC News, Barbara Douglas appeared stunned as she confirmed four of her nieces were among those killed.
“I had four nieces,” Douglas told the news station. “They’re all dead. They were in there.”
Because autopsies were still being conducted, officials declined to confirm the names of the crash victims on Monday, but family members of some victims confirmed their identities.
“Due to the severity of the crash, the process is taking some time,” Patnaude said.
The brewery trip had been planned to celebrate her niece Amy Steenberg’s 30th birthday, Douglas told CBS News. Relatives identified Steenberg’s other three sisters who were killed as Mary Dyson, Allison King and Abby Jackson, according to the New York Times.
Like the McGowans, Steenberg and her husband, Axel Steenberg, had just gotten married in June; Axel’s brother, Rich Steenberg, was also killed in the limousine crash, she said.
“Can’t wrap your head around it — you just can’t,” Douglas told the news station. “They were wonderful girls. They would do anything for you, and they were very close to each other, and they loved their family."
Their younger brother, Eric Steenberg, who was not on the trip, told the news station it seemed like “a really bad dream.”
On Monday morning, standing at the intersection where the crash happened, Karina Halse cried as she confirmed to ABC’s “Good Morning America” that her sister, 26-year-old Amanda Halse, and her sister’s husband, Patrick Cushing, were among those killed.
“My sister was the most beautiful soul that I’ve ever been so grateful to know in my life,” Karina Halse told host Robin Roberts, through tears. “She was creative from the day that she was born . . . She just wanted to make sure everyone was happy, and I’m so grateful that she was my sister out of everyone else on this earth.”
Calls to the families of the other victims were not returned, and The Washington Post is withholding their names until their identities can be confirmed by relatives.
The crash occurred where two state highways — State Route 30 and State Route 30A — meet at the bottom of a hill. Schoharie Town Supervisor Alan Tavenner said Sunday the New York Department of Transportation had in recent years outlawed heavy trucks on the hill because of instances where runaway trucks lost their ability to apply the brakes down the steep grade.
The NTSB, the New York State Police and the New York State Department of Transportation are all investigating the crash. Information on the vehicle’s speed and braking were not immediately available, but officials had recovered the limo’s airbag control module -- a component that could shed light on those factors, similar to an aircraft’s “black box” data recorder.
Sumwalt said it was early in investigators' process.
“What they’re here to do at this point is collect the perishable information, the information that can go away with the passage of time,” he said. “We know that the car ran a stop sign and had a tragic result . . . Our ultimate goal is to keep things like this from happening again.”