SCHOHARIE, N.Y. — The 17 friends had all piled into a white stretch limousine for what was supposed to have been a birthday celebration at an upstate New York brewery. But they never reached their destination.
The massive vehicle, speeding downhill Saturday, approached the intersection of two highways that residents had long warned was notoriously dangerous.
And in just a few seconds of terror, their worst fears were realized: The limousine lost control, careening through the intersection and striking an empty car.
The crash killed all 18 occupants of the limousine, including its driver, as well as two pedestrians, in an accident that left deep tire tracks in the ground and the small town of Schoharie, New York, reeling.
“That limo was coming down that hill probably over 60 mph,” said Jessica Kirby, 36, manager of the Apple Barrel Country Store, where she said customers were hit near the parking lot. “All fatal.”
“I don’t want to describe the scene,” she added. “It’s not something I want to think about.”
Federal investigators arrived Sunday in the town that sits about 40 miles west of Albany, and were scouring the scene for clues about the cause of the crash. New York State Police said autopsies were underway on all the passengers and the driver of the limousine, including toxicology, though they cautioned that the investigation was in its early stages.
Still, the loss of life stunned even seasoned investigators, who called it the nation’s deadliest transportation accident since a 2009 plane crash near Buffalo, New York, killed 50 people.
“Twenty fatalities is just horrific,” said Robert L. Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is launching a comprehensive investigation. “I’ve been on the board for 12 years and this is one of the biggest losses of life that we’ve seen in a long, long time.”
A day after the crash, remnants of the accident’s violence were readily visible, including a tire torn from the limousine that lay in the mud in the overgrown creek bed, below several trees that had presumably been sawed off to access the vehicle. What appeared to be debris from the car littered the scene: mirror fragments, taillight pieces, a hairbrush.
State Police said the 2001 Ford Excursion limousine barreled down one roadway and passed through the T-intersection where the two highways intersect without stopping, crashing into another vehicle, an unoccupied 2015 Toyota Highlander, before landing in a shallow ravine beyond the road. The two pedestrians were struck near the Apple Barrel and killed.
All those killed were adults, State Police said. They included at least two pairs of newlyweds and parents of young children, including a 16-month-old, as family and friends quickly created a Go Fund Me page to cover future expenses.
Erin Flaherty, 26, was friends with many of the victims. “They were together multiple times a week, always hanging out,” said Flaherty, noting the tight-knit group of mostly 30-somethings held frequent backyard parties.
Valerie Abeling, the aunt of Erin Vertucci, who died in the crash, said the limousine was headed toward a birthday party at a brewery in Cooperstown, New York.
Lester Andrews, 60, of Rochester, New York, said his two stepsons and a daughter-in-law were among the people killed in the limousine crash.
The brothers, Axel Steenburg, 29, and Rich Steenburg, 34, lived upstate, he said. Axel Steenburg’s wife, Amy, also died in the crash, he said, and was celebrating her 30th birthday.
Axel and Amy, who lived in Amsterdam, New York, and were married over the summer, had rented the limousine, he said. Rich Steenburg leaves behind two children, a 10-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old stepson, a relative said. Rich Steenburg’s wife was not feeling well Saturday, and was not in the limousine.
Andrews said even the deceased passengers’ closest relatives were still awaiting information.
“Their mother is looking for some answers,” he said. “She wants to know what happened to her sons.”
In an afternoon news conference outside Albany, State Police offered few details about the accident, though Christopher Fiore, first deputy superintendent of the State Police, said that the limousine had been licensed in New York. Its driver was required to wear a seat belt; its passengers in the back were not, he said. Only one person inside the limousine apparently survived the initial impact; that person later died after being flown in a helicopter to an Albany hospital.
Stretch limousines are modified after manufacturing and are generally not subject to the same safety regulations that are imposed on the protective structures for passenger cars. Such oversized vehicles have been involved in tragic accidents in New York before: In 2015, a limo carrying a bridal party of eight women crashed with a pickup truck in Cutchogue, New York, killing four people.
State Police said they had no information about the deceased driver in Saturday’s crash, or about the company where the limousine — which resembles an elongated SUV — was rented.
Alan Tavenner, town supervisor of Schoharie, called the death toll “completely mind-boggling” in a town of 3,000.
The State Police and the Schoharie County Sheriff’s Office responded to the accident, which occurred just before 2 p.m. Saturday at the intersection of State Route 30 and State Route 30A, according to police.
The flag at the local ambulance company, which had responded to the first reports of the accident, was flying at half-staff, though workers would not speak to reporters.
“My heart breaks for the 20 people who lost their lives,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in a statement.
Tavenner said the site of the accident was a notoriously dangerous spot, a “nasty intersection” that transportation officials had tried to fix in the past without success. “I honestly think it was a more dangerous intersection than it was before,” he said.
Route 30 leads steeply downhill to a T-intersection with Route 30A, marked only with a stop sign.
Kirby also said the intersection was dangerous. “We’ve had three tractor-trailer type vehicles — they come down that hill too fast, they go though our parking lot and they end up in a field behind our business,” she said.
The accident came during one of the most popular periods of the year for tourists who flock to upstate New York for its scenic fall foliage and apple-picking.
Columbus Day weekend tends to be the busiest weekend of the year for the Apple Barrel, Kirby said, and the store was packed. Most of her customers had arrived from New York City, New Jersey or Albany, she said.
“A lot of people from New York City come up and they do the country things, the apple picking and the sort,” she said.
Kirby said she was inside the store when she heard the loud bang. She rushed out and immediately called 911.
“We’ve heard accidents before,” she said. “You know that sound when it happens.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.