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As Communities Grieve, Schoharie Investigation Continues

The official seal of the National Transportation Safety Board
National Transpotation Safety Board
The official seal of the National Transportation Safety Board

More details continue to emerge after 20 people were killed Saturday afternoon ina limousine accident in the rural upstate New York Town of Schoharie.

The 2001 Ford Excursion stretch limo carrying 18 people crossed through the intersection of State Routes 30 and 30A into an adjacent parking lot, striking an unoccupied vehicle and two pedestrians. Everyone inside the limo was killed.

Though officials have not released the identities of the dead, several names have surfaced on social media over the last couple days.

Amy Dunlop-Johnson identified herself as a cousin of two people inside the limo. She said the group was celebrating.

“My cousin’s wife was going to be turning 30 on October 10. So they were, they got a limo and they were going from winery to winery to celebrate.”

Some of the victims grew up in the City of Amsterdam, about 25 miles from the crash. Mayor Michael Villa said his adult children went to school with one of the families affected by the crash. He said the incident hits close to home.

“Two of the couples were recently married. It just really is a time where, you know, I hope that you hang onto your faith, your family, your friends. And certainly our community will do everything we that can to ease what is a pain that obviously is not going to be an easy burden for anyone to carry,” said Villa.

As the investigation continues, the region is already grieving.

A vigil is planned tonight in Amsterdam at the Mohawk Valley Gateway Overlook Bridge. Candles will be passed out beginning at 6:30.

New York Congressman Paul Tonko, a Democrat from Amsterdam, tells WAMC's Jim Levulis he knew some of the victim's of Saturday's crash in Schoharie.

Another event honoring the victims will be held Tuesday evening in Schoharie at the Apple Barrel Country Store, where the crash occurred.

The store, which reopened Sunday, said it was taking donations for the victims.

The National Transportation Safety Board is in Schoharie trying to figure out what caused the crash. NTSB Chair Robert Sumwalt said the agency looks at “everything.”

“We look at the vehicle factors. We look at the roadway. We look at survival factors. We look at the condition of the drivers. We look at the operator itself, the company,” said Sumwalt.

New York Governor Andrew says the state is issuing a cease and desist order to stop the limousine company involved in the crash in Schoharie from operating until an investigation is concluded. Cuomo told reporters Monday in New York City the company involved was Prestige Limousine.

NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo discusses the crash with reporters in New York City Monday.

“The updates we have thus far are, number one, the driver of the vehicle – the quote-unquote ‘limousine’ – did not have the appropriate driver’s license to be operating that vehicle,” Cuomo said. “Second, that vehicle was inspected by the New York State Department of Transportation last month, and failed inspection and was not supposed to be on the road. We don’t yet know the cause of the accident – if it was a vehicle malfunction, if it was a driver malfunction, driver error – that’s part of the ongoing investigation between the NPSB and the state police. The name of the company was Prestige Limousine. We’re doing a cease and desist order to stop Prestige Limousine from operating until the investigation is concluded. But that’s what we know so far, and the investigation is ongoing.”

“The federal government has the primary set of regulations for limousines, buses, etcetera,” Cuomo continued. “They basically fall under the bus regulatory system, which is a federal system. I don’t know that this is a situation where we can find a new law or a new regulation. The instinct is always, “We need a new law, we need a new regulation.” Sometimes the issue is, “The law worked fine, and the regulation worked fine, they were just broken.” Here the law was the driver needed what’s called a CDL, a Commercial Driver License, with a passenger endorsement. The driver did not have that proper license. The law here was you need your vehicle to pass investigation, and this vehicle was inspected just last month, and it failed inspection. The owner of the company – in my opinion, because there will be legal consequences – but the owner of the company had no business putting a failed vehicle on the road. So we’ll go through the whole situation, but sometimes we have the laws, we have the regulations – they’re broken.”

"The vehicle failed physical inspection," Cuomo said when responding to reporters. "First of all, when you have a stretch vehicle, what they call a chopped vehicle, which is what this limousine was. This was a Ford that was cut and extended. When that vehicle is constructed, it's supposed to have a federal certification as to the manufacturer of that vehicle. This vehicle did not have that certification that it was extended in a way that was compliant with federal law. Secondly, the on-site inspection they did, in terms of vehicle systems, suspension system, Chassis system, braking system, it also failed those checks. So it didn't have the federal certification, and it failed the safety test that was done just last month. Right? So sometimes you say, "Well maybe we should inspect more frequently, maybe this, maybe this, maybe this." Sometimes people just don't follow the law. And that may very well be what happened here. The vehicle was inspected last month, failed inspection, it's not supposed to be on the road. The driver did not have the appropriate license. Those are very clear laws and regulations."

A reporter then asked Cuomo whether the owner of the limo company had a criminal background and if a task force was established following a 2015 fatal limousine accident on Long Island. 

"There was no specific task—I don't know if there was a task force set up, but there are federal regulations," Cuomo responded. "The federal government certifies that the vehicle was constructed appropriately. This vehicle never had that certification, so it violated the federal process. The state then inspects the vehicle. We inspected the vehicle just last month, it failed the inspection. The driver did not have the appropriate license. So I think the owner of this company, the owner of Prestige has a lot of questions to answer. There's an ongoing investigation. But is there a possibility of liability? Civil and Criminal? Certainly."

Schoharie Town Supervisor Alan Tavenner said the town has complained to the State Department of Transportation in the past about the safety of the T-style intersection at the bottom of a hill.

“About four years ago they finally banned tractor trailers from the side road, from Route 30, coming down because they had at least two instances where tractor-trailers lost their brakes and went through the intersection.”

A spokesman for DOT referred questions from WAMC to the NTSB, but said “our hearts go out to the victims of this horrific accident and to their families.”

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer said it’s “critical” for the NTSB to “get to the bottom” of how the incident happened.

Three years ago, the New York Democrat urged federal officials to investigate limo accidents nationwide after a fatal accident on Long Island.

Governor Cuomo has directed state agencies to “provide every resource necessary” as investigations continue.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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