Schoharie County

Foss: Give federal investigators access to limo

A memorial to the 20 victims of the deadly October stretch limousine crash in Schoharie is seen on Dec. 16.
A memorial to the 20 victims of the deadly October stretch limousine crash in Schoharie is seen on Dec. 16.

The truth. 

That’s what the public deserves to know about the devastating limousine crash that killed 20 people in rural Schoharie County. 

In the two-plus months since this crash occurred, there’s been a lot of speculation about what happened.  

Among other things, we’ve heard that poor road design might have been a factor, that the limousine had recently failed a federal inspection because of brake issues, that the owner of the limousine company was a former FBI informant with a criminal background, that the limo driver did not have a proper license.  

What we haven’t heard is what caused the crash. 

And it doesn’t appear we’re any closer to hearing what caused the limousine to barrel through an intersection at the bottom of a hill, killing two pedestrians, 17 passengers and the limo’s driver. 

The reason for this lack of information should enrage anyone who cares about preventing similar tragedies in the future — about saving lives, holding those responsible accountable and making whatever changes to public policy might be appropriate. 

As of last week, the agency charged with investigating the crash and telling us what happened, the National Transportation Safety Board, had been denied access to the stretch limousine by the Schoharie County District Attorney’s Office. 

This means federal investigators haven’t been able to examine the vehicle for mechanical failures that might have led to the crash. 

They haven’t been able to look at the limo’s brakes, or electrical system or to assess the overall structural integrity of a vehicle that was modified after it came off the assembly line. 

“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 NTSB wrote in a sternly worded letter to Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery earlier this month. 

Why the DA’s office can’t find a way to cooperate with the NTSB is a mystery to me.

After all, it’s not unusual for NTSB to investigate accidents that are also the subject of criminal inquiry, as this one is. 

And the district attorney has permitted the defense team for Nauman Hussain, the operator of the limousine company, to inspect the vehicle. Why the DA can’t grant the same level of access to the NTSB is beyond me. 

The stonewalling is outrageous, petty and a threat to public safety. 

The longer it goes on, the harder it becomes for NTSB investigators to reconstruct what happened. 

What if the vehicle — currently stored in a tent — corrodes over the winter, making it impossible for the NTSB to determine whether a mechanical failure caused the crash? 

Indeed, it’s hard to see how Mallery’s refusal to grant the NTSB access to the vehicle benefits anybody, except maybe Hussain. 

Mysteries don’t become easier to unravel over time, and the murkiness surrounding this one could strengthen his defense, raising questions and creating doubts about the condition of the vehicle and the conclusions drawn from it. 

Remember: The limousine crash was the deadliest transportation crash in the U.S. since 2009. 

Figuring out what happened and making whatever changes need to be made to prevent similar accidents from occurring in the future is of both local, state and national interest. 

It’s not too late for the Schoharie County District Attorney to open her office doors to NTSB investigators. 

I hope Mallery reconsiders her office’s lack of cooperation with the federal agency, realizes that cooperation is possible and moves forward with a more collaborative spirit than what we’ve seen thus far.  

An unfortunate casualty in all of this is the truth, which becomes just a little bit harder to find with each passing day. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. 

Categories: News, Opinion

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