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Brakes faulted in Schoharie limo inspections

Brakes faulted in Schoharie limo inspections

Names of 20 victims released by state police
Brakes faulted in Schoharie limo inspections
Hearses drop of the bodies of crash victims at Betz, Rossi,& Bellenger Funeral Home in Amsterdam.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

SCHOHARIE & AMSTERDAM -- The stretch limousine involved in Saturday's crash that killed 20 people in Schoharie on Saturday failed a federal inspection because of brake issues just last month, according to federal records.

The 2001 Ford Excursion stretch limousine owned by Prestige Limousine of Wilton was cited by the Federal Motor Carrier Administration for malfunction indications in the hydraulic braking system in a Sept. 4 inspection, among other issues. It is unclear whether the issues, which also included failure to correct previously cited defects and operating without proof of periodic inspection, were addressed.

The information emerged as state police and the National Transportation Safety Board continue to investigate the events that led to the tragedy, in which 17 passengers, the driver, and two pedestrians were killed when the limousine went through a stop sign at state routes 30 and 30A in rural Schoharie at 1:55 p.m. Saturday. The vehicle went through the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store, striking an unoccupied vehicle and the pedestrians before going over a small embankment.

It was the deadliest transportation accident in the United States since a 2009 plane crash outside Buffalo. A bus fire outside Houston in 2005 that killed 23 mostly elderly people being evacuated from a nursing home ahead of a hurricane is the most recent comparable highway death toll.

State police on Tuesday released the names of those who died after notifications to families were completed. The passengers' ages ranged from 24 to 34.

The 17 people who were in the stretch limousine are: Axel J. Steenburg, 29, of Amsterdam; Richard M. Steenburg, 34, of Johnstown; Amy L. Steenburg, 29, of Amsterdam; Allison King, 31, of Ballston Spa; Mary E. Dyson, 33, of Watertown; Robert J. Dyson, 34, of Watertown; Abigail M. Jackson, 34, of Amsterdam; Adam G. Jackson, 34, of Amsterdam; Matthew W. Coons, 27, of Johnstown; Savannah D. Bursese, 24, of Johnstown; Patrick K. Cushing, 31, of Halfmoon; Amada D. Halse, 26, of Halfmoon; Erin R. McGowan, 34, of Amsterdam; Shane T. McGowan, 30, of Amsterdam; Amanda Rivenberg, 29, of Colonie; Rachael K. Cavosie, 30, of Waterford; and Michael C. Ukaj, 33, of Johnstown.

The driver was identified as Scott T. Lisinicchia, 53, of Lake George.

The two pedestrians struck and killed by the limousine in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel County Store were Brian Hough, 46, of Moravia, Cayuga County, and James Schnurr, 70, of Kerhonkson, Ulster County.

The bodies of victims began to be released to funeral homes on Tuesday. The Betz, Rossi, Bellinger & Stewart Funeral Home in Amsterdam announced late Tuesday that it and affiliated funeral homes are handling the arrangements for 11 victims, including the four King sisters and their spouses, who will have a joint service.

With many of the victims from the Amsterdam area, an estimated 2,500 people turned out for an emotional candlelight vigil Monday night in the city.

The party in the limousine was celebrating a birthday and was heading to Brewery Ommagang in Cooperstown on Saturday when the accident occurred.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday directed that flags across the state be flown at half-staff in honor of the victims from Thursday until interment.

"In the wake of the Schoharie crash, it is hard to fathom the extent of this tragedy. We lost mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters, brothers and friends, and the community will never be the same," Cuomo said. "The entire family of New York mourns for the lives cut short in this crash. In memory of those who were taken from us, I am directing that flags be lowered to half-staff."

Cuomo said some of those who died were state employees, including Justice Center employee Amy King Steenburg, SUNY-Oswego professor Brian Hough, and Patrick Cushing, a New York State Senate employee.

Cuomo said Monday that the state will seek a cease-and-desist order to prevent the limo company from operating while the investigation continues. The company said it is voluntarily taking its three other vehicles off the road.

Federal Department of Transportation records show that Prestige vehicles had failed four of their five inspections in the last two years -- a failure rate of 80 percent, four times the national average for limousine companies. The company had no previous accidents in the last two years, records showed.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt, who came to the area on Sunday to review the investigation, returned to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, but federal investigators are expected to remain in Schoharie collecting evidence and conducting interviews for the rest of the week. The full investigation and analysis, however, could take up to two years, a spokesman said.

"The investigation is continuing. It's only beginning," NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said.

Sumwalt on Monday said the investigation will look at all aspects of the incident, from the safety records of the driver and company to the condition of the vehicle, and whether properly upgraded brakes were installed when it was converted from a standard Ford Expedition into a stretch vehicle. He described the crash, in which the limousine's engine was pushed into the driver's compartment, as "high impact," but declined to estimate the vehicle's speed.

Sunwalt said that Prestige Limousine is cooperating with the investigation. Its owner, former FBI informant Shahed Hussain, is currently in his native Pakistan.

"Prestige Limousine extends its deepest condolences to the family members and friends of those who tragically lost their lives on Saturday," the company said in a statement issued by Albany attorney Lee C. Kindlon. "We are performing a detailed internal investigation to determine the cause of the accident and the steps we can take in order to prevent future accidents."

State police, meanwhile, are conducting a criminal investigation. They said their forensic investigation unit is examining the vehicle involved in the crash and evaluating its mechanical condition.

Troop G Commander Maj. Robert Patenaude said police have the airbag control module, which is effectively the "black box" that will help police determine the operations of the vehicle prior to the crash. Investigators said they found no skid marks at the scene.

The driver, Lisinicchia, did not have a proper license for operating the 19-seat limousine, Patenaude said. While he had a commercial driver's license, he did not have the endorsement for handling a passenger bus. The limousine qualified as a bus under state law because it could carry more than 15 passengers.

The Grant & Longworth law firm of Dobbs Ferry, which has consulted with Lisinicchia's wife, issued a statement saying they don't think Lisinicchia was aware of any mechanical issues with the vehicle.

"Mrs. Lisinichhia's husband Scott was a loving and caring man who never would have knowingly put others in harm's way," the statement said. "The family believes that unbeknownst to him he was provided with a vehicle that was neither roadworthy nor safe for any of its occupants."

Patenaude said the victims were active on their cellphones prior to the crash, both texting and on social media, and anyone who may have communicated with them is asked to contact state police at 518-630-1700.

The intersection at state routes 30 and 30A has a reputation for being hazardous. Route 30 comes to a stop sign at the bottom of a long hill.

The state Department of Transportation rebuilt the intersection in 2010 in an effort to make it safer, though since then it has been the site of at least four prior accidents, including tractor-trailers going through the stop sign. DOT banned tractor-trailers from that stretch of Route 30 in 2015.

Another vigil for the victims will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Schoharie Central High School gymnasium. It is being organized by the Loden family, the owners of the Apple Barrel.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, swilliams@dailygazette.net or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

Correction: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect model for the limousine involved in the crash. It was a 2001 Ford Excursion

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