A party, 17 friends and a ragged limo
A random convergence resulted in the worst U.S. road crash in a decade
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.
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.
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.