A party, 17 friends and a ragged limo

A ran­dom con­ver­gence re­sulted in the worst U.S. road crash in a decade

Toronto Star - - WORLD - JESSE MCKIN­LEY, LUIS FERRÉ-SADURNÍ AND KRISTI BERNER

SCHOHARIE, N.Y.— It was sup­posed to be a sur­prise. Axel Steen­burg had been plan­ning a birth­day party for his wife, Amy, for a while. But the ever ex­citable Steen­burg was no­to­ri­ously bad at keep­ing se­crets and, some­how, she found out.

“He would try to hide it from you and then you would see him bit­ing his cheek, it was so ob­vi­ous,” his mother, Janet Steen­burg, said.

Axel Steen­burg co-or­di­nated a pas­sel of friends through a group chat, ar­rang­ing for a tour and tast­ing at a pop­u­lar up­state brew­ery and rent­ing a party bus to make sure that any­one drink­ing would not be driv­ing. He even set aside two spare be­d­rooms in his home in Am­s­ter­dam, N.Y., a small city north­west of Albany, in case some­one was not sober enough to drive home.

But the bus broke down be­fore pick­ing them up, so he booked what­ever he could find at the last-minute: a white stretch limou­sine.

It fit 18. They were 17. That would do.

Be­hind the wheel of the 2001 limou­sine was a hus­band hold­ing down a part-time job as a driver for a com­pany whose ve­hi­cles made him worry for his safety.

About 40 kilo­me­tres to the south, a pro­fes­sor and his fa­ther-in-law were out cel­e­brat­ing a fam­ily wed­ding and pulled over at a road­side coun­try store to take a break from driv­ing. All 20 would soon be dead. Their lives were cut short in a vi­o­lent crash in Schoharie, N.Y., this month that has left in its wake a col­lec­tion of mourn­ing fam­i­lies, a clutch of young or­phans and state and fed­eral of­fi­cials try­ing to piece to­gether what went wrong.

On Satur­day, on a damp, chilly day, hun­dreds of peo­ple packed the pews of an old brick church in Am­s­ter­dam at a ser­vice for eight of the 20 peo­ple killed last Satur­day.

On Wed­nes­day, the op­er­a­tor of the limou­sine com­pany, Nau­man Hus­sain, was ar­rested and charged with crim­i­nally neg­li­gent homi­cide as a re­sult of rent­ing out a ve­hi­cle even though it had re­peat­edly failed in­spec­tions, in­clud­ing of its brakes, and had been deemed not road wor­thy by state of­fi­cials.

Hus­sain, 28, pleaded not guilty.

The toll of the crash has been par­tic­u­larly acute be­cause of the con­nec­tion be­tween the 17 young peo­ple — all 24 to 34 years old — who had climbed into the limou­sine, bound for a Fin­ger Lakes brew­ery, Om­megang.

They were a tight-knit gang of friends and fam­ily: Among them were four sis­ters, two broth­ers and two sets of new­ly­weds. They hung out reg­u­larly, gath­er­ing for game nights on Satur­days at Axel and Amy Steen­burg’s home. Amy Steen­burg would have turned 30 on Wed­nes­day.

Why the limou­sine ended up at that spot — speed­ing down a kilo­me­tre-long hill, across a busy high­way, clip­ping a parked car and hit­ting two pedes­tri­ans be­fore ca­reen­ing into an over­grown creek bed — is one of many mys­ter­ies.

The brew­ery was far to the west of the crash site.

What­ever the rea­son, it was at that in­ter­sec­tion that the lives of the limou­sine’s pas­sen­gers, its driver and the two pedes­tri­ans col­lided, a ran­dom con­ver­gence that re­sulted in the coun­try’s worst trans­porta­tion-re­lated ac­ci­dent in nearly a decade.

That Axel Steen­burg would take charge of plan­ning his wife’s birth­day was no sur­prise, ac­cord­ing to a neigh­bour, Missy Dav­i­son, who had watched with sweet awe as the young Steen­burg cou­ple had nested in the mod­est two-story home on Pleas­ant Av­enue.

“They were so am­bi­tious and so in love,” said Dav­i­son, who re­called the young cou­ple mov­ing in two years ago and im­me­di­ately help­ing neigh­bours. “They were go­ing places.”

On Satur­day, the plan was for guests to meet at the cou­ple’s house and take a party bus from there. But at some point that day, Axel Steen­burg re­ceived word the bus had bro­ken down, so he scram­bled to find an al­ter­na­tive. He ended up book­ing a ride from a busi­ness called Pres­tige Limou­sine, which op­er­ated out of a bud­get mo­tel in Wil­ton, N.Y. It was run by Hus­sain.

The limou­sine driver’s name was Scott T. Lisinic­chia. He lived in a quiet wooded neigh­bour­hood south of the re­sort town of Lake Ge­orge.

Lisinic­chia, 53, had suf­fered tragedies and self-in­flicted wounds: his brother, An­thony, had died in 2017 at 42; Lisinic­chia had two drug-re­lated ar­rests, mak­ing his own life more dif­fi­cult.

The job driv­ing for Pres­tige was part-time and per­ilous, ac­cord­ing to his wife, Kim, who told CBS News that he wor­ried about the safety of its fleet. “There were a few times where he told me, I over­heard him say, ‘I’m not go­ing to drive this, like this, you need to give me an­other car,’ ” Kim Lisinic­chia told CBS.

State of­fi­cials have said Scott Lisinic­chia did not have the proper li­cence to drive the limo in­volved in the crash. But Kim Lisinic­chia dis­puted he was un­qual­i­fied, say­ing he had driven trac­tor-trail­ers.

“Even if he didn’t have the proper li­cence,” she said, “this still would’ve hap­pened.”

Brian Hough dug rocks. An as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of ge­ol­ogy at the State Uni­ver­sity of New York at Oswego, Hough, 46, taught cour­ses about all things arche­o­log­i­cal — stratig­ra­phy, ge­ol­ogy and pa­le­on­tol­ogy — but also liked get­ting out­doors: hik­ing, bik­ing, and yes, rock climb­ing.

He also had a way with chil­dren, ac­cord­ing to his brother, J.T. In Au­gust, J.T. had vis­ited his older brother’s home in Mo­ravia, N.Y., near Syra­cuse, and Brian had taken the fam­ily to the Mu­seum of the Earth in Ithaca.

“My kids, they all loved their Un­cle Brian,” Hough said. “He was one of the best un­cles you could ever pos­si­bly imag­ine — al­ways the goof ball, wrestling with his nieces and neph­ews, pre­tend­ing to be Franken­stein, a real kid at heart.”

Dur­ing that trip, Brian Hough men­tioned a fam­ily wed­ding com­ing up in Oc­to­ber, his wife’s cousin get­ting mar­ried nearby.

So on that Satur­day, Hough, his wife, Ja­clyn Sch­nurr, and their 8-year-old son, Ben, along with other rel­a­tives, were car­a­van­ing in sev­eral cars.

Just be­fore 2 p.m., the group de­cided “to stop and stretch their legs and maybe get some­thing to eat,” said Hough’s mother. They parked near the Ap­ple Bar­rel Coun­try Store.

The red-roof coun­try store sits at the in­ter­sec­tion of Route 30 and Route 30A, a T-shaped junc­tion that had long un­nerved res­i­dents as a fright­en­ing stretch to nav­i­gate. Route 30 is down­hill as it veers to­ward Route 30A, a busy by­way that runs east to west. There is noth­ing but a stop sign to slow down mo­torists.

Sch­nurr’s brother took Ben into the store. Hough lin­gered near the car with his fa­ther-in­law, James Sch­nurr, 70. Ja­clyn Sch­nurr was stand­ing nearby.

Up the hill, a white limou­sine be­gan its de­scent.

When the 17 friends be­gan pil­ing into the limo and cram­ming into its tan leather seats un­der its mir­rored roof, they never fath­omed that the sunny af­ter­noon would be their last.

Rachael Cavosie and Amanda Riven­burg, friends of the group, were also in the limou­sine. Matthew Coons, who had com­peted in fit­ness com­pe­ti­tions with Axel Steen­burg, had joined and brought his girl­friend, Sa­van­nah Burs­ese, who was sav­ing up money to pur­sue a law de­gree in Texas.

Amy Steen­burg’s in­sep­a­ra­ble sis­ters — Mary Dyson, Abi­gail Jack­son and Al­li­son King — were also in the car, along with two of their spouses, Robert Dyson and Adam Jack­son.

And Michael Ukaj, the quiet one of the group, was also in the limou­sine — co­in­ci­den­tally, it was his 34th birth­day.

Yet they knew noth­ing about the limo’s failed in­spec­tions or about its owner, a man with a check­ered his­tory, in­clud­ing a past life as a gov­ern­ment in­for­mant. They had no way of know­ing the Ford Ex­cur­sion had been listed for sale on Craigslist for $9,000 just two days be­fore. The list­ing read, “Dot Ready full ser­viced,” re­fer­ring to the De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion. Erin Mc­Gowan, who was there with her new hus­band, Shane Mc­Gowan, texted her best friend at 1:37 p.m., about 18 min­utes be­fore the crash. The texts were joc­u­lar but, in ret­ro­spect, eerie. It was no “lux­ury limo” and it was mak­ing a racket, she wrote.

“The mo­tor is mak­ing every­one deaf,” wrote Mc­Gowan, adding five emo­jis of a grin­ning face shed­ding tears from laugh­ing so hard. “When we get to brew­ery we will all b deaf.”

Min­utes passed and some of the mes­sages sent from the limou­sine only grew more omi­nous. At 1:40 p.m., 15 min­utes be­fore the crash, Al­li­son King texted her fi­ancé.

“She said the brakes were burn­ing and they were coast­ing,” her mother said.

The stretch of road head­ing to­ward the site of the ac­ci­dent is an un­bro­ken, kilo­me­tre-long de­cline from the top of a ridge north of Schoharie. A fam­ily farm sits at the crest, with a pond and a pad­dle boat. Signs warn about its steep­ness and no trucks are al­lowed. About half­way down, the road nar­rows and curves.

Trav­el­ling down might take a minute at the posted speed limit: 55 m.p.h. (88 km/h). But it is easy to pick up speed — brake lights are on for most driv­ers go­ing down the hill. There’s a fi­nal turn where the Ap­ple Bar­rel comes into sight, a steady line of traf­fic on Route 30A go­ing east and west.

There is an over­size stop sign, to help pre­vent ac­ci­dents.

But on that day, the limou­sine never stopped.

Some­time af­ter 2 p.m., Linda King saw a break­ing news mes­sage on her Face­book feed about the ac­ci­dent.

“But they said the limo was car­ry­ing a wed­ding party so we weren’t im­me­di­ately con­cerned,” her hus­band, Tom King, said.

Hours later, in­ves­ti­ga­tors flooded the quiet res­i­den­tial street where Axel and Amy Steen­burg lived. Un­der moon­light, they tried to match the li­cence plates of the many cars out­side their home with the vic­tims killed in­side the limou­sine that lay rav­aged in a ravine, 40 kilo­me­tres away.

In­side the cou­ple’s white clap­board home, Lady, their Bull­mas­tiff, waited for her own­ers.

Two gifts sat on the kitchen counter. They were Axel Steen­burg’s last un­spoiled sur­prises: two bot­tles of Amy’s favourite wine and a birth­day card, all strate­gi­cally po­si­tioned so they would have been the first things Amy saw when they re­turned to the house that night.

The un­opened bot­tles are still there.

KYLE ADAMS THE NEW YORK TIMES

The stretch of road head­ing to the ac­ci­dent site is a kilo­me­tre-long de­cline from the top of a ridge, with just a stop sign at the bot­tom. The limou­sine never stopped.

HANS PENNINK THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A fu­neral ser­vice was held Satur­day in Am­s­ter­dam, N.Y., for eight of the 20 peo­ple killed.

Limo owner Nau­man Hus­sain is charged with crim­i­nal neg­li­gence.

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