NTSB-state police evidence dispute lingers in Schoharie limo crash investigation

The marker honoring Schoharie limo crash victim Amy Steenburg Tuesday at the memorial site.
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The marker honoring Schoharie limo crash victim Amy Steenburg Tuesday at the memorial site.

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie

The National Transportation Safety Board had to wait seven months — and get a judge to intervene — before its safety investigators gained access to the 2001 Ford Excursion stretch limousine involved in the 2018 Schoharie crash that killed 20 people.

The limousine was being held by state police.

The dispute delayed the NTSB investigation into the deadly crash, and it still rankles NTSB officials, as was clear when the federal agency released its final report on Tuesday.

The criminal investigation being conducted by state police “significantly impeded and curtailed our investigative efforts,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said, and meant an investigation that would normally have taken about one year instead took two years.

State police took control of the limousine and stored it in an NTSB-provided tent at the Latham state police barracks starting shortly after the crash. Sumwalt said that from that point until the NTSB sought intervention from Schoharie County Court Judge George R. Bartlett III, the NTSB investigators were not allowed access to the vehicle.

When the critical braking systems were being inspected and dismantled, the NTSB personnel were kept about 100 feet away, Sumwalt said, and at one point the tent flaps were closed, so the federal inspectors couldn’t see what was happening at all.

“All parties have to play in the sand box together, and in this case we weren’t even allowed into the sand box,” Sumwalt said during a virtual meeting that was webcast to the public.

The delay meant that potentially valuable NTSB recommendations to improve the safety of limousines were delayed, he said.

It is normal, Sumwalt said, for NTSB investigations and criminal investigations into an incident to be going on at the same time. “It is not normal for an NTSB investigation to be delayed by a criminal investigation,” he said.

The state police investigation led to the indictment of Prestige Limousine operator Nauman Hussain, 30, on 20 counts each of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, based on a conclusion that corrosion and inadequate maintenance of the brakes led to a catastrophic brake failure as the limousine came down a long hill on Route 30, leading to a crash that killed the driver, all 17 passengers, and two pedestrians in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store. The charges remain pending.

The state police, in a statement on Tuesday, said the NTSB was fully aware that the criminal case was the priority, and the vehicle had to be fully processed by state police and the defense before they could conduct a hands-on examination.

“State police secured custody of the limousine as criminal case evidence pursuant to a search warrant issued by the Schoharie County Court, and under New York State Criminal Procedure Law, the limousine was considered property of the court,” state police spokesman Beau Duffy said in an email. “We did not have the authority to allow the NTSB or anyone else to perform any action that would affect the integrity of evidence seized under the warrant.”

He said only the court could provide NTSB with the access they requested. “However, the NTSB was allowed access to view the limousine and the inspections performed by state police investigators, as they awaited permission from the court to perform their own examination,” Duffy said.

An in-court agreement was reached on Jan. 31, 2019, which gave the NTSB access to the limousine. The NTSB was denied access to any records maintained by Prestige Limousine concerning vehicle safety, driving training, or other matters, the NTSB said.

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