Limo in deadly crash should not have been on road

The Oneida Daily Dispatch (Oneida, NY) - - Front Page - By Michael Hill and Sab­rina Caserta

SCHOHARIE, N.Y. >> The su­per­sized limou­sine that crashed and killed 20 peo­ple out­side a coun­try store failed a safety in­spec­tion last month and shouldn’t have been on the road, and the driver wasn’t prop­erly li­censed, New York’s gover­nor said Mon­day.

The state moved to shut down the owner, Pres­tige Limou­sine, as state and fed­eral au­thor­i­ties in­ves­ti­gated the cause of Satur­day’s wreck in Schoharie.

The crash about 170 miles north of New York City came three years af­ter an­other deadly stretch-limo wreck in New York state spurred calls for Gov. An­drew Cuomo to ex­am­ine such ve­hi­cles’ safety. It was not clear whether the state took any steps to do so.

As vic­tims’ rel­a­tives tried to come to grips with the tragedy that hap­pened as a group of friends and fam­ily were on their way to a 30th birth­day party, au­thor­i­ties had yet to say how fast the limo was go­ing or de­ter­mine what caused it to run a stop sign.

The 19-seat ve­hi­cle had at least some seat belts, but it was un­clear whether any­one was wear­ing them, Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board Chair­man Robert Sumwalt said.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors plan to ex­am­ine the man­gled limo’s data recorders and me­chan­i­cal sys­tems as well as the road, which has a his­tory as a danger spot. They are also look­ing into the driver’s record and qual­i­fi­ca­tions and con­duct­ing an au­topsy to see if drugs or al­co­hol were fac­tors.

But of­fi­cials al­ready saw some red flags, Cuomo said: The driver didn’t have the nec­es­sary com­mer­cial li­cense, and the ve­hi­cle failed a state in­spec­tion that ex­am­ined such things as the chas­sis, sus­pen­sion and brakes.

“In my opin­ion, the­owner of this com­pany had no busi­ness putting a failed ve­hi­cle on the road,” the gover­nor said while at­tend­ing a Colum­bus Day Pa­rade in New York City. “Pres­tige has a lot of ques­tions to an­swer.”

He also said the limo — built by cut­ting apart a heavy-duty SUV and length­en­ing it — had been cre­ated with­out fed­eral cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, though NTSB of­fi­cials said they hadn’t yet de­ter­mined whether the ve­hi­cle met fed­eral stan­dards.

A call to Pres­tige Limou­sine’s of­fice in Gan­sevoort went unan­swered. Fed­eral records show the com­pany has un­der­gone five in­spec­tions in the past two years and had four ve­hi­cles pulled from ser­vice. State po­lice said Mon­day that they seized three other cars from Pres­tige.

Fed­eral trans­porta­tion records said Pres­tige is owned by Sha­hed Hus­sain, who worked as an in­for­mant for the FBI af­ter the Sept. 11 at­tacks, in­fil­trat­ing Mus­lim groups by pos­ing as a ter­ror­ist sym­pa­thizer inat least three in­ves­ti­ga­tions. In one case, he helped con­vict men ac­cused of plot­ting to bomb New York syn­a­gogues.

His role at the FBI was as­sailed by civil lib­er­ties groups, who ac­cused him of help­ing the FBI en­trap peo­ple.

The FBI did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment Mon­day.

The limou­sine, built from a 2001 Ford Ex­cur­sion, ran a stop sign at an T-shaped in­ter­sec­tion at the bot­tom of a hill and slammed into an un­oc­cu­pied SUV at the Ap­ple Bar­rel Coun­try Store and Cafe, a pop­u­lar stop for au­tumn leaf-peep­ers.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors have yet to de­ter­mine whether the driver tried to brake. The wreck left no skid marks in­ves­ti­ga­tors could see, but that might be due to misty weather or anti-lock brakes, Sumwalt said.

The wreck killed two pedes­tri­ans and all 18 peo­ple in the limou­sine, in­clud­ing four sis­ters who were headed with friends and rel­a­tives to a brew­ery for a party for one of the sis­ters.

The four sis­ters’ aunt, Bar­bara Dou­glas, said they had felt “they did the re­spon­si­ble thing get­ting a limo so they wouldn’t have to drive any­where.”

“My­heart is sunken. It’s in a place where I’ve never felt this type of pain be­fore,” said Ka­rina Halse, who lost her 26-year-old sis­ter Amanda.

A vigil was planned Mon­day night in Am­s­ter­dam, where some vic­tims lived.

The crash ap­peared to be the dead­li­est land-ve­hi­cle ac­ci­dent in the U.S. since a bus full of Texas nurs­ing home pa­tients flee­ing 2005’s Hur­ri­cane Rita caught fire, killing 23. Satur­day’s wreck was the na­tion’s dead­li­est trans­porta­tion ac­ci­dent of any kind since a 2009 plane crash near Buf­falo, New York, killed 50 peo­ple.

Lim­ou­sines built in fac­to­ries are re­quired to meet strin­gent safety reg­u­la­tions. But lux­ury cars that have been con­verted to limos like the one in Satur­day’s crash of­ten lack cer­tain safety com­po­nents, such as sideim­pact air bags, re­in­forced rollover pro­tec­tion bars and ac­ces­si­ble emer­gency ex­its.

There are few fed­eral reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing limos that have been mod­i­fied af­ter leav­ing the fac­tory. Reg- ula­tions of­ten vary by state and even lo­cal gov­ern­ments.

“It cer­tainly is the Wild West out there when it comes to lim­ou­sines and stretch ve­hi­cles,” said Na­tional Safety Coun­cil CEO Deb­o­rah A.P. Hers­man, who would like to see uni­form state limou­sine reg­u­la­tions across then­ation.

Ford said it has never made its own stretch ver­sion of the Ex­cur­sion SUV. The au­tomaker has a pro­gram that cer­ti­fies com­pa­nies that mod­ify ve­hi­cles to Ford spec­i­fi­ca­tions, but it was un­clear whether the limo in Satur­day’s crash was al­tered by one of those com­pa­nies.

There were 12 wrecks — and a dozen crash deaths — in­volv­ing large limos from 2012 to 2016, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion. That com­pares with over 157,000 crashes and over 171,000 deaths in­volv­ing all types of ve­hi­cles dur­ing that pe­riod.

But some big-limo wrecks caught the pub­lic’s at­ten­tion and prompted pleas for­more over­sight.

Five women out for a bach­e­lorette party were killed in 2013 when their stretch limo caught fire in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia be­cause of fric­tion be­tween the drive shaft and the rear floor­board. Af- ter a stretch limou­sine was T-boned and nearly torn in half on New York’s Long Is­land in 2015 — killing four women on a win­ery tour— a spe­cial grand jury im­plored Cuomo to ex­am­ine the safety of such ve­hi­cles.

It ap­pears the task force was never formed, and nearly three years af­ter the grand jury’s rec­om­men­da­tion, it was un­clear what, if any­thing, Cuomo’s ad­min­is­tra­tion did in re­sponse.

“I don’t know if there was a task force set up,” the gover­nor said Mon­day, while sug­gest­ing that Satur­day’s crash didn’t nec­es­sar­ily point to a need for­more reg­u­la­tion.

“Some­times, peo­ple just don’t fol­low the law” that al­ready ex­ists, he said. “And that may very well be what hap­pened here.”

The New York grand jury re­port rec­om­mended state law­mak­ers re­quire stretch lim­ou­sines that seat nine or more pas­sen­gers to meet the stricter in­spec­tion reg­u­la­tions that ap­ply to buses.

Law­mak­ers, in­clud­ing Demo­cratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, asked fed­eral of­fi­cials sev­eral years ago to im­ple­ment higher safety stan­dards for stretch limos mod­i­fied af­ter leav­ing the man­u­fac­turer.

HANS PENNINK—AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Re­cov­ery crews re­move de­bris from the scene of a fa­tal crash, Sun­day, Oct. 7, 2018, where a limou­sine crashed into a parked and un­oc­cu­pied SUV killing 20 peo­ple at an in­ter­sec­tion a day ear­lier, in Schoharie, N.Y.

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