Note: 4/6/19 11:35 a.m., this post has been updated.
It’s been six months since one of the deadliest automobile crashes in U.S. history occurred in the rural community of Schoharie, New York. Twenty people were killed after a stretch limousine came down a steep hill and crashed into a parking lot.
On Friday evening, a grand jury indicted the operator of the limousine company involved in the crash with 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide and 20 counts of manslaughter in the second degree.
As investigations continue, lawmakers and people affected by the crash are seeking safety improvements to limousines.
At the corner of State Routes 30 and 30a in the Town of Schoharie, outside the Apple Barrel Country Store, flowers, and small photos are still placed around a makeshift wooden memorial. The structure displays 20 crosses, one for each of the victims of October’s limousine crash.
Six months later, the Apple Barrel store has set up a foundation to raise money to build a permanent memorial.
Joshua Loden is secretary of the Reflections Memorial Foundation. Outside the Apple Barrel he points to where the memorial would go – nothing too big, he says.
“But something that will be natural with the landscape, with the area, with the community, but still be a nice, respectful way to remember them,” said Loden.
This is the spot where a stretch limousine carrying 18 people including the driver came down the hill, through the intersection, and into the Apple Barrel parking lot, striking an unoccupied vehicle, which then hit two pedestrians, as the limousine came to rest in a ravine.
Across the intersection where the accident occurred is a big white farm house where Arlene Price grew up.
“It’s just a great house. It’s got a lot of history to it. It was a tavern. The house by the side of the road,” laughed Price.
Looking out her sunroom window, Price remembers cars going off the road when she was a kid. Before modifications were made to the intersection, most recently about a decade ago, she says there used to be a curve at the bottom of the hill before the intersection.
“There was quite a steep bank. And they would go off the side of the road on the curve because they couldn’t make the curve, they usually were going too fast. And they would roll over. And a lot of people just walked away from the accidents. But they almost never made it to the intersection itself,” said Price.
Price said several neighbors felt there could more dangerous accidents when the state Department of Transportation made changes to the roadway, making it a modified T-style intersection. She says since the changes, she’s seen trucks come down the hill and pass through the stop sign.
“One morning I was walking the dog. A water truck was coming down the hill and he lost his brakes. He did the right thing. He just started blowing the horn, you know, to let people know…but he was out of control. And again, I have to hand it to the driver because somehow he got across the intersection, he wound up in the back of the Apple Barrel, you know, up in the dirt,” said Price.
Behind the Apple Barrel store is also where the stretch vehicle owned by Prestige Limousine ended up in October.
Albany-based attorney Sal Ferlazzo represents the Rivenburg family. Amanda Rivenburg was a passenger. Ferlazzo was the first to file suit against the operators of Prestige Limousine. He also filed what’s called a Notice of Intention to File a Claim against the state Department of Transportation and Department of Motor Vehicles.
Ferlazzo thinks the intersection is unsafe, too.
“It’s a trap. You drive and you’re going down a state road and you see a yellow cautionary sign saying, ‘Caution: go 50,’ you certainly think you can go at least go 50 or around there, and then all of a sudden there’s a stop sign,” said Ferlazzo.
In addition to the roadway, Ferlazzo says the 2001 Ford Excursion limousine shouldn’t have been on the road in the first place.
“And when there’s a September finding that there’s not proper braking, and there’s a hearing and a consent order, which resulted in, really, no action, it’s our position that there is a special duty and that the state, even assuming that the road had been properly configured, could have stopped this to begin with, or prevented it from occurring,” said Ferlazzo.
Several safety issues surrounding the limousine have been since been reported, including the fact that the vehicle failed a DOT inspection in September. The modified SUV had enough seats to be classified as a bus. The driver of the limo did not hold a special endorsement on his license to operate such a vehicle.
The operator of the limousine company, Prestige’s Nauman Hussain, now faces a 40-count indictment. A grand jury Friday evening voted to charge Hussain with 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide and 20 counts of second-degree manslaughter. Hussain’s attorney, Lee Kindlon, vowed to fight the charges.
Prestige Limousine’s owner, Shahed Hussain, a former FBI informant and Pakistani native, is believed to be in hiding overseas.
The state several of seized Prestige’s vehicles. The National Transportation Safety Board is continuing its investigation into the crash, examining the vehicle itself, but also the company’s records of prior crashes and management of its drivers. NTSB is continuing to investigate seatbelt usage, “survivability” of the passengers, and state oversight of the limousine company.
In the months following the crash, state officials began to look for solutions. Governor Andrew Cuomo initially called for a ban on stretch limousines in his state budget proposal in January.
That drew strong reaction from industry groups, including Kevin Barwell, President of the Limousine, Bus, Taxi Operators of Upstate NY.
“You know, that’s like going in and telling a pizzeria, ‘we can’t make pizza anymore,’” said Barwell.
Eventually, Governor Cuomo walked back a full-ban on stretch limos. Here’s Cuomo speaking to WAMC in February about limos modified by a third party.
“We’re not looking to ban all stretch limousines. It’s those stretch limousines that may be dangerous because of how the work was actually done,” said Cuomo.
Barwell believes the main issue is a lack of communication between state agencies.
“We really feel that, at this present time, there needs to be a better system of communication or information. If that is the case, then we believe that this accident would have never happened,” said Barwell.
Some are seeking action at the federal level, including Congressman Paul Tonko of New York’s 20th district. The Democrat is from Amsterdam, also the hometown of several victims of the crash. Tonko told WAMC in March he’d look for a way to close any loopholes regarding limousine safety.
“Either way, I think both levels of government deserve, are required to respond to a situation like this so this god awful incident is never, never repeated,” said Tonko.
New York State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin has been working on limousine safety issues since 2006. After the crash, Paulin, of Westchester, introduced a handful of bills co-sponsored by local lawmakers.
One item would establish a passenger safety task force. Paulin says the task force could examine communication between DMV and DOT.
“There’s a confusion in that both of those agencies really need to coordinate and figure out what’s going on out there and make sure that unsafe vehicles are appropriately handled, so the task force, in my mind, would be looking at that issue – how the two agencies interface,” said Paulin.
A bill would require passengers use seatbelts. Another would require certain vehicles to be equipped with carbon monoxide detectors.
Another bill sponsored by Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara would establish a searchable database for stretch limousines.
As the state budget negotiations continued, several limo safety provisions ended up in the spending plan signed by Governor Cuomo on April 1st:
The budget makes it a Class E felony to operate a limo where such operation causes the death of another person. Heightened civil penalties were created for operating without state Transportation Department authority or violating DOT safety regulations.
DOT and State Police were given the authority to retrieve plates for vehicles found out of compliance.
The Department of Motor Vehicles was empowered to refuse and revoke registrations for vehicles that don’t meet federal safety standards.
If an unauthorized vehicle is inspected at a licensed inspection station, the inspection station must now report that to DMV. A station found to have improperly inspected vehicles three times in an 18-month period would have its operating certificate suspended.
Stretch limos will now be prohibited from making U-turns – a factor in a deadly Long Island limo crash in 2015. And insurance rates for commercial vehicles that carry more than eight passengers were also increased.
DOT spokesman Glenn Blain said it would be inappropriate to comment further on the crash, citing the ongoing criminal investigation, but called the actions pursued by the governor in the state budget “common-sense initiatives that are enhancing safety for all New Yorkers.”
After the grand jury’s decision Friday, a Department of Motor Vehicles spokesman said it would be in appropriate to comment at this time.
It remains to be seen what else could be passed before the end of the legislative session in June. As more information develops, more legislation may be considered.
A recent report by the Times Union alleging the driver of the Schoharie limo had marijuana and traces of anti-seizure medication in his system at the time of the crash raised eyebrows among several lawmakers, including Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy of Albany.
“It adds a whole ‘nother disturbing dimension with the fact that the driver may have been impaired. All we know at this point is that the driver may have had significant amounts of marijuana in his system,” said Fahy.
Moving forward, more lawsuits on behalf of the victims are likely. Mourning and grief will continue in a region that has seen its share of tragedy.
But Arlene Price says Schoharie people are resilient. She recalls the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Irene that swept through the community, damaging homes and businesses in 2011.
“You know, it wasn’t that long ago we went through the flood. And it’s a strong community. You know, they do pull themselves together. There was a lot of dismay and there still is over the accident itself,” said Price.
Joshua Loden, outside the Apple Barrel store, says, in a way, the crash strengthened the community. He says that’s just Schoharie.
“You know, it affected everyone and especially the first responders and what they saw and what they’ve gone through, and what they continue to go through. But in those times it really shows Schoharie’s true roots and it really brings the community together to just be there for one another and really exemplify what community is,” said Loden.