SCHOHARIE — Holly Wood was at a stop sign at the intersection of state routes 30 and 30A just before 2 p.m. on Oct. 6, 2018 when she heard a loud rumbling coming from behind her.
When she looked into her rear-view mirror to investigate, Wood, who was traveling with her daughter, saw the stretched 2001 Ford Excursion SUV she had passed moments earlier after the vehicle pulled to the side of the road barreling towards her.
“I told my daughter to hold on because I thought it was the end,” she said.
Wood described a “white flash” as the limo swerved to miss her before striking a vehicle in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store before crashing into a culvert.
“At that point, I knew it had to be going really fast because when it hit the gully, it came up off the ground,” Wood said through tears.
“From there it was just chaos,” she said. “Just pure chaos.”
Wood’s testimony was just one of several accounts described by witnesses of the crash on the fourth day of the trial against Nauman Hussain, the operator of Prestige Limousine & Chauffeur Service, the Wilton company that rented the stretched Excursion SUV to a group of 17 friends from the Amsterdam area earlier that day to attend a birthday celebration in Cooperstown.
The vehicle eventually crashed after its brakes failed descending a steep hill on Route 30. All 17 passengers, the vehicle’s driver and two bystanders were killed in what remains the deadliest automobile wreck the country has seen in more than a decade.
Prosecutors say that Hussain failed to maintain the troubled limo, which had a history of failed inspections in the months leading up to the wreck, and intentionally skirted state DOT registration and inspection laws that could have prevented the crash. Hussain faces 20 counts each of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide for his alleged role in the crash.
Witnesses on Thursday described spotting the vehicle driving through the Schoharie area in the lead up to the crash, with several describing the limo making loud noises and emitting noxious fumes every time the driver applied the brake.
“Every time the brakes were pressed on there was a burning metal-on-metal smell coming off it,” said Matthew Heller, whose family followed the limo for approximately 30 minutes down state Route 30A just prior to the crash.
Wood said she first encountered the vehicle at the intersection of routes 7 and 30, when the limo pulled off to the side of the road but continued to lurch forward. At one point, she said the vehicle’s reverse lights came on, but the limo continued to move forward.
“He was pulled over and didn’t come to a complete stop,” Wood said.
She went on to describe how she told her daughter to call 911 after the vehicle crashed through the parking lot as she ran to assist the victims.
“I couldn’t do anything,” Wood said. “They were gone.”
Others described the scene after the limo crossed the intersection of routes 30 and 30A at speeds in excess of 100 mph and into the parking lot of the Apple Barrel store, a popular destination that several said was busy the day of the crash.
Daniel Bogan said he saw the limousine speeding down Route 30. He watched as it crashed into his sister-in-law’s vehicle, an area where several family members had gathered on their way to a wedding celebration. His father-in-law James Schnurr and brother-in-law Brian Hough were the two bystanders killed that day.
“I couldn’t fathom why he didn’t stop,” Bogan said of the limo.
Bogan went on to testify that he discovered his father-in-law’s lifeless body and knew there was nothing he could do. The dozen or so individuals watching the proceedings from the courtroom’s gallery were seen wiping tears as the proceedings unfolded.
Lee Kindlon, a defense attorney for Hussain, has sought to blame the crash on the Mavis Discount Tire shop in Saratoga Springs that serviced the limo’s brakes in the months leading up to the wreck.
On Wednesday, Virgil Park, a manager for the repair shop, admitted Hussain was charged for brake work that was never performed on the vehicle, and another mechanic, Thomas Klingman, said he placed a DMV inspection sticker on the vehicle without ever completing the safety inspection after Park pressured him into doing so.
Mavis — which can only perform standard DMV vehicle inspections and not the more rigorous safety inspections the state’s DOT requires for passenger vehicles like the limousine — faces a number of civil lawsuits for its alleged role in the crash.
A report on the crash issued by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board determined the “probable cause” of the crash was Prestige’s “egregious disregard for safety,” but also blamed the state’s DMV and DOT for not doing more to keep the vehicle off the road.
Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery, who is prosecuting the case, has focused on Hussain’s failure to properly register the limo as a commercial passenger vehicle despite multiple warnings from state DOT officials in the months leading up to the crash.
If the vehicle was properly registered, it would have been subjected to DOT inspections twice a year that would inspect all aspects of the vehicle, and require the operator to show proof that the vehicle had undergone regular maintenance in between inspections.
Earlier this week, Chad Smith, a DOT inspector, outlined his efforts to bring the vehicle into compliance during the course of more than a year, which included numerous phone calls and emails to Hussain. He completed two roadside inspections of the vehicle and placed “out-of-service” decals on the vehicle after the limo failed both inspections.
One of the stickers was recovered in Hussain’s personal vehicle in the days following the crash. Hussain, in 2021, accepted a plea bargain for the criminally negligent homicide counts that would have seen him serve probation and community service, but the deal was rejected by State Supreme Court Justice Peter Lynch during a sentencing hearing last year.
Prior to the vehicle coming into possession of Prestige Limo, the limo was owned by Advantage Transportation Group in Albany, who rented the vehicle out for several years after acquiring it from Royal Limousine in Troy during an acquisition deal.
Donald Cottrell, the garage supervisor of Advantage Transportation, testified Thursday that the vehicle underwent regular maintenance every 2,000 miles or 30 days, whichever came first. He also said all vehicles in Advantage’s fleet, including the stretched Excursion, underwent routine brake inspections, when all four wheels were removed and the brakes system was examined.
Cottrell said he was present when Hussain and his father, Shahed Hussain, came to Advantage to purchase the Excursion SUV that was stretched 144 inches in 2016.
Shahed Hussain was the owner of Prestige Limo and was out of the country at the time of the crash and has never faced any charges.
Cottrell said he told the younger Hussain about all DOT-required protocols that would need to be followed if he intended to use the vehicle to transport passengers and provided him with information on how to get started.
“I talked adamantly about doing it the right way, not to play around with DOT,” Cottrell said.
Kindlon then questioned Cottrell about what would happen if one his mechanics said they serviced a vehicle’s brakes but never actually did so.
Cottrell said he was never aware of such a situation, but said the individual “would probably be terminated” if such a situation were to occur.
It was not the last time Kindlon sought to redirect attention away from the wrecked limousine and on to Mavis during Thursday’s proceedings.
Mark Zemcik, a school bus driver and farmer with experience as a mechanic, testified that he saw the vehicle pass by his farm on Route 30A minutes before the crash and noted the limo had a loud exhaust and its wheels were covered in brake dust.
“The wheels were black,” he said. “Not painted black, like, covered in brake dust.”
Zemcik described seeing the vehicle for approximately 50 seconds. Not long after, he recalled hearing police sirens.
Kindlon asked Zemcik if he serviced the brakes on his bus and questioned him on the importance of having a properly functioning brake system. He also asked the importance of being able to trust a mechanic.
“I would hope you can trust your mechanic,” Zemcik said.
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: [email protected] or by calling 518-395-3120.