SCHOHARIE COUNTY — The National Transportation Safety Board is demanding access to the stretch limousine involved in the Oct. 6 crash in Schoharie that killed 20 people, saying its mandated safety investigation “cannot be hindered any further.”
The Dec. 14 letter from NTSB General Counsel Kathleen Silbaugh to Schoharie County District Attorney Susan J. Mallery states the agency has yet to be given access to the vehicle, which is in the custody of state police while a criminal investigation continues.
“While we understand the important duties you are fulfilling, we are gravely concerned that your lack of responsiveness to our requests has seriously impeded our abilities to carry out our Congressionally-mandated duties to properly complete this safety investigation and potentially prevent similar accidents in the future,” the letter states.
The letter said the NTSB has made repeated requests through letters, phone calls and emails, to which Mallery has been “unresponsive.” “What we have been told is that your schedule is full and you are too busy to respond,” Silbaugh wrote.
In a phone interview with Gazette newsgathering partner CBS6News on Wednesday, Mallery said it wasn’t true that her office has not cooperated with the NTSB. She said a court order issued Oct. 12 by Schoharie County Court Judge George R. Bartlett III limits who can access the crash vehicle, a 2001 Ford Excursion stretched after-market to hold up to 19 passengers.
Mallery, whose office is in charge of any criminal prosecution in the case, did not immediately respond Thursday to a phone message and email seeking response. State police referred questions to Mallery’s office.
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The operator of the limousine company, Nauman Hussain of Cohoes, has been charged by state police with one count of criminally negligent homicide, but a Schoharie County grand jury is expected to hear the case and consider more charges.
The NTSB noted that Hussain’s defense team was allowed to inspect the vehicle in mid-November, and at one point it was promised access once that inspection had taken place.
The Oct. 6 crash occurred at the intersection of Routes 30 and 30A in Schoharie. The limousine, operated by Prestige Limousine of Wilton, was carrying 17 passengers when it went through the Route 30 stop sign, through a parking lot and into a ravine, killing all aboard as well as the driver. Two pedestrians in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store were also killed.
The letter spells out NTSB concerns that some of the information that can be gleaned from the limousine is perishable, and that it has been denied access to two other limousines owned by Prestige, which were also taken by state police.
“Our investigative team may no longer be able to evaluate the corrosion on the vehicle or its parts at the time of the crash [which is critical when examining the brakes], or the status of the vehicle’s electrical system at the time of the crash,” Silbaugh wrote. “Similarly, the NTSB may not be able to evaluate the condition of the other vehicles operated by the company at the time of the crash, which is critical to understanding proper vehicle maintenance.”
A previously undisclosed letter that Silbaugh sent to Mallery on Oct. 17, outlined frustrations with access levels than shrank on the days after the crash. Initially, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt and a team of nearly a dozen federal investigators came to the scene, though Sumwalt left within a few days.
In the earlier letter, Silbaugh said the NTSB’s access to the limousine was repeatedly restricted in the days after the accident. “As the week progressed, the ability of the NTSB to join the exam eroded from full participation to observer, to observer without taking photos or notes, to being barred from the exam,” Silbaugh wrote.
The letter went on to say that while the NTSB understands the need not to compromise a criminal investigation, but disputes any conclusion that it’s own work would interfere.
“You are looking for the potential evidence of a crime. The NTSB is concerned with different evidence, or a different look at that evidence, when looking for safety issues to prevent future accidents,” Silbaugh wrote.
Areas the NTSB particularly wants to investigate include the occupiable space inside the vehicle, the structural modifications made to lengthen the vehicle’s wheelbase and increase occupancy, the power train components, and the steering and brake systems, according to the letter.
The stand-off is unusual, given that many of the incidents the NTSB investigates also involve law enforcement investigations.
“The NTSB often cooperates and coordinates successfully with local officials during its investigations,” NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said on Thursday.