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Cuomo: Limo in Schoharie crash failed inspection; driver not properly licensed

Cuomo: Limo in Schoharie crash failed inspection; driver not properly licensed

State troopers start criminal probe
Cuomo: Limo in Schoharie crash failed inspection; driver not properly licensed
Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at a news conference in New York on Dec. 11, 2017
Photographer: JEENAH MOON/THE NEW YORK TIMES

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SCHOHARIE -- The limousine that crashed Saturday afternoon in Schoharie, killing 20 people, failed a state inspection last month and was not supposed to be on the road, according to officials investigating the tragedy.

 

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo spoke about the development as federal transportation authorities started what will be a lengthy investigation of the vehicle, the driver and other factors related to an intersection that many consider to be dangerous. Meanwhile, state police are conducting a criminal probe of the tragedy.

The investigations "are distinct, but we are working together and sharing information that could be of common interest," National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt said at a Monday afternoon press conference at state police headquarters.

Sumwalt, who said the NTSB will investigate all aspects of the crash, said it was too soon to answer many questions about the vehicle, its history, or the limousine company. He did say damage to the stretch limo indicated "a high-energy impact," but he would not estimate its speed before the crash.

The driver, who was among those killed, should not have been driving that kind of vehicle, as he did not have the appropriate license to do so, according to both Cuomo and state police investigators.

"We don't yet know the cause of the accident -- if it was vehicle malfunction, if it was driver malfunction, driver error -- that's part of the ongoing investigation between the NTSB and the state police," Cuomo told reporters.

State Police Troop G commander Maj. Robert Patenaude confirmed the driver didn't not have the proper commercial driver's license to be transporting so many people, and that the vehicle had failed inspection.

"We'll determine whether there is any criminal culpability on the part of anyone, and if there is, we will hold them accountable," Patenaude said.

Cuomo told reporters a cease-and-desist order was being issued to prevent the limousine company from operating until the investigation is concluded.

Also:

The 2001 Ford Excursion stretch limousine crashed in Schoharie just before 2 p.m. Saturday, killing all 18 people on board and two pedestrians. 

Last month's inspection of the vehicle, which it failed, was performed by the state Department of Transportation, Cuomo said. 

"The law here was you need your vehicle to pass inspection. And this vehicle was inspected just last month, and it failed inspection," Cuomo said. "The owner of the company, in my opinion, because there'll be legal consequences, but the owner of the company had no business putting a failed vehicle on the road."

Cuomo also spoke about the victims. 

"It reminds us all that every day is precious. We take it for granted," Cuomo said. "You leave the house in the morning, and sometimes you'll never see your loved ones again. So first, our thoughts and prayers are with all those grieving parents, friends, relatives in this horrendous accident."

Prestige Limousine, which also does business as Saratoga Luxury Limousine and Hasy Limousine, lists its address as 776 Saratoga Road, Gansevoort, which is the address of the Crest Inn Suites and Cottages in Wilton.

Federal records show the limousine companies are owned by Shahed Hussain. Patenaude said state police have been in touch with him, but he was in Pakistan, his home country, on Monday.

Hussain has the same name and address as that of a former informant for the FBI who testified in two prominent terrorism cases. A law enforcement official suggested to the New York Times that Hussain's son may operate the limousine company.

Hussain, the informant, posed as a wealthy Muslim radical and was the central prosecution witness in a 2004 federal sting focusing on a pizzeria owner and an imam at an Albany mosque. In 2010, Hussain, who posed as a terrorist, played a key role in the government’s case against those plotting to blow up two synagogues in New York City.

In the Albany case, both men were convicted of terrorism-related charges, but defense attorneys argued Hussain had little credibility because he previously faced fraud charges and helped other immigrants fraudulently obtain driver's licenses.

In Newburgh in 2009, in a different trial in which he also served as an FBI informant, Hussain revealed he had filed for bankruptcy and was in the process of resolving that debt when he purchased the Hideaway Motel in Wilton in 2006, paying $650,000 for the property.

Calls to phone numbers listed for the limousine companies and the motel all went to voicemail or went unanswered on Monday.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigation into Saturday's crash will be lengthy, an NTSB spokesman said.

An NTSB "go team" of about a dozen subject area experts from as far away as Seattle and Denver flew into the Capital Region on Sunday, and will spend about five days gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses, after which the information will be analyzed for any possible conclusions.

The accident was the worst transportation accident in the United States since 2009, when a commuter flight crashed near Buffalo.

"The thing that is striking to me and to my team is the unfortunate number of fatalities," said Sumwalt with the NTSB.

New York law requires only the driver and front-seat passenger in a limo to wear seat belts, though most, if not all other seats, also have belts. Sumwalt said it was too soon to know whether any of the passengers were wearing seat belts, but the investigation should reveal that.

The history of and training standards for the limousine driver and the limousine company will also be part of the investigation, as will the vehicle's condition and whether proper rules were followed when the conventionally built Ford Expedition was "stretched" into a limousine. A federal certification that should be in the vehicle isn't visible, but that may be due to crash damage, an NTSB investigator said.

"The whole process, from beginning to final recommendation, can take up to two years," NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said.

On Monday afternoon, NTSB officials cleared the area near the crash site of media and pedestrians so they could conduct an aerial survey of the crash scene using a drone.

“With the drone, we’re plotting the area so we can overlay it onto a map to show the course of the vehicle in the accident,” said Mike LaPonte of the NTSB. “We always map all of the accidents."

The intersection of state routes 30 and 30A has a reputation for being dangerous, as Route 30 comes down a long hill to a T-intersection controlled by a stop sign.

The limousine went through that intersection without stopping and hit a car in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel country store Saturday.

"I'm not an engineer, but I can tell you, coming down that hill even in regular car or my pickup truck, you have to pump your brakes," said state Assemblyman Christopher Tague, R-Schoharie. "If you're not someone familiar with that road, that stop comes up quick."

The intersection of routes 30 and 30A was reconstructed by the state Department of Transportation in 2010 to "improve safety and address geometric and operational deficiencies," according to a DOT press release at the time. Previously, Route 30 met Route 30A at an angle.

In 2013, based on concerns about heavy trucks coming down the Route 30 hill, DOT imposed an 18-ton weight restriction on that section of road; in January 2015, the limit was lowered to 5 tons; and in December 2015, trucks were banned entirely.

DOT traffic counts show Route 30A, which has the Schoharie exit for Interstate-88, is by far the busier road. Traffic counts from 2015 show that Route 30A is used by 6,219 vehicles per pay on average, while Route 30 is used by only 1,165 vehicles.

Tague, a former Schoharie town supervisor, said he knows there have been other incidents, including at least two since the reconstruction, when tractor-trailers have gone through the intersection after coming down the hill.

"Usually, if something happens more than  a couple of times, there's a problem," Tague said.

Tague, who attended a Monday morning briefing at the Schoharie County Sheriff's Department with U.S. Rep. John Faso, R-Kinderhook, and state Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, said the legislators hope to see improvements, though they will wait until the state police and NTSB conclude their investigations.

"We want to make sure we do anything we can to make sure something like this never happens again," Tague said

Also:

"In a rural upstate town like this, this is heart-wrenching," Tague said, adding that the volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel who responded are also having to deal with the trauma.

"Obviously, there are a lot of unanswered questions, and the families deserve this respect and response," an emotional U.S. Rep. Paul D. Tonko, D-Amsterdam, said. Tonko, who said he knew some of the victims, attended the state police-NTSB press conference in Latham and spoke briefly afterward.

Reach Daily Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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