The federal government’s nearly two-year investigation into the stretch limousine crash that killed 20 people will come to a head on Tuesday, with a meeting of the National Transportation Safety Board that will look at findings, probable cause and any recommendations from the Schoharie crash.
The NTSB’s virtual meeting Tuesday morning in Washington, D.C., will come just a week short of the second anniversary of the horrific crash at state Routes 30 and 30A, which killed 17 passengers and the driver in a stretch limousine, and two pedestrians in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store.
The crash and resulting revelations about the stretched 2001 Ford Excursion and its history of failed regulatory inspections have already resulted in changes to state law to tighten limousine regulations, and the Capital Region congressional delegation has proposed changes at the federal level — yet to progress through Congress — that could get a boost from any NTSB recommendations.
The NTSB issued an interim report in October 2019 that recommended new limousine seatbelt standards that have yet to be adopted by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and late last month the NTSB issued hundreds of pages of factual findings about the crash — detailing an investigation that delved into Prestige Limousine’s efforts to avoid stringent regulations, road conditions at the intersection, and the details of what occurred on Oct. 6, 2018, the Saturday of Columbus Day weekend.
The federal investigation has taken place mostly quietly as state criminal investigations have gone forward and state and federal legislators have pushed for limousine safety changes.
Following a state police investigaion, prosecutors believe the limousine suffered catastrophic brake failure coming down a mile-long hill, due to poor maintenance of the vehicle and its brakes. Limo company operator Nauman Hussain, 30, faces 20 counts each of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in Schoharie County Court.
The defense is arguing that Hussain relied on the Mavis Discount Tire store in Saratoga Springs to service the vehicle, and he was unaware of any shortcomings. Mavis, which is not charged criminally but has been named in numerous civil lawsuits by victims’ families, denies responsibility. Hussain’s trial is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with discussions underway about a possible plea bargain. The most recent virtual attorneys’ conference was held on Wednesday, the court clerk reported, with another expected in the future.
The passengers were all young adults on their way from Amsterdam to a weekend birthday celebration in Cooperstown, who rented the Prestige Limousine vehicle that morning after plans with another limousine company fell through.
A reconstructed timeline put together by NTSB investigators shows the vehicle left Amsterdam about 1 p.m. that day, following a very indirect route if the destination was Cooperstown — west on the state Thruway to Exit 28 at Fultonville, then south on Route 30A to Central Bridge in Schoharie County. There, the limousine made a left turn up Route 7 on a long hill — the same hill it would soon fatally descend. The vehicle was not equipped with GPS, the NTSB determined.
A witness travelling north on Route 30 stated he observed the limousine turn right from Route 7 onto Route 30 south, heading towards the intersection of Route 30 and Route 30A. The report said the witness was able to observe the driver as the limo passed and described him as looking “confused” or “frazzled”. As the witness stopped at the intersection of Route 7 and Route 30, through his rearview mirror, he said he observed the limousine pull off the road to the right.
Two other witnesses who were in a different vehicle said they saw the limo pull over on Route 30, and they then passed it. The witnesses continued, stopping at the intersection of Route 30 and Route 30A. The witness driver said she heard a loud noise, looked in the rear-view mirror, and saw the limousine approaching from behind at a high rate of speed. She described the noise as being like a “jet plane”. The limousine swerved into the oncoming lane, proceeded through the intersection, and crashed. “The witnesses did not hear any braking or see brake lights on the limousine,” the report said.
The crash occurred at 1:55 p.m., just under an hour after the vehicle left Amsterdam. The weather was clear and sunny.
Approximately 20 minutes before the crash, one of the passengers engaged in a text conversation with a person not in the limousine, stating in that conversation that “the limo sounds like it is going to explode”, “it’s a junker”, “the motor is making everyone deaf”, and “when we get to brewery we will all b deaf,” the NTSB report said.
Families of the victims have filed numerous lawsuits against Hussain, his father and uncle as owners or purported investors in the limousine company, and Mavis Discount Tire, which is accused of inadequately servicing the limousine. Some lawsuits have also been filed against the state departments of Transportation and Motor Vehicles, alleging regulatory failures.
With the deaths of 20 people, the Schoharie crash was the deadliest transportation accident in the United States in nearly a decade.