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Judge: Give NTSB access to limo at heart of Schoharie tragedy

Judge: Give NTSB access to limo at heart of Schoharie tragedy

Bartlett wants access problem resolved by Jan. 16
Judge: Give NTSB access to limo at heart of Schoharie tragedy
The top of a stretch limousine that crashed in Schoharie can be seen.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

SCHOHARIE COUNTY -- Schoharie County Judge George R. Bartlett wants the stalemate over access to the vehicle that crashed on Oct. 6, killing 20 people, resolved by Jan. 16. 

In a letter sent Wednesday to Kathleen Silbaugh, general counsel to the National Transportation Safety Board, Bartlett expressed his concern over the NTSB's lack of access to the limousine, which is in the possession of New York State Police. 

"Initially, it was never this court's intention that any of its issued search warrants be construed so as to deny the NTSB access; and until the recent kerfuffle, this court had no reason to believe that the NTSB was not given the access necessary to fulfill its obligations," Bartlett states in the letter. "That being said, the court now knows otherwise."

The "kerfuffle" includes publication of parts of a Dec. 14 letter from Silbaugh to Schoharie County District Attorney Susan J. Mallery, stating that her agency, which is tasked with determining the cause of major traffic accidents, had yet to be given access to the vehicle. 

Mallery's office did not return phone calls seeking comment Friday. 

The Oct. 6 crash happened when the limousine, traveling down a long hill on Route 30 from Route 7 to Route 30A, went through a stop sign at a significant speed, through the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store, and into a shallow ravine. All on board, most of whom were from Amsterdam or had connections to that community, were killed. Two pedestrians in the store parking lot were also killed.

Subsequently, limousine company operator Nauman Hussain of Cohoes was charged with criminally negligent homicide. Police said the aging limousine had failed commercial inspections because of faulty brakes and other issues, and the driver was operating out of his license class. Allowing the vehicle on the road under those circumstances was criminal, police allege. 

In his letter to the NTSB, which the court released to The Daily Gazette on Friday, Bartlett detailed the confusion and lack of coordination between federal, state and local officials over the issue, the sticking point of which appears to be that the NTSB was not included in a search warrant governing access to the vehicle. Bartlett also provided a solution in his letter.

"It appears the easiest way to break this impasse is to include the NTSB on the search warrant," he wrote. "This being the case, I request that the NTSB submit suggested language for the court to insert into the search warrant.

"Please submit same by Jan. 14 ... defense counsel and the District Attorney shall submit any opposition on or before Jan. 16," the judge wrote. "Of course, in the interim, I urge the interested parties to use their best efforts to reach an agreement as to the appropriate language that will best accommodate everyone's duties and result in an amicable resolution." 

On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko's office issued a statement announcing a "compromise" had been reached between the NTSB, Mallery's office and the state police, to allow federal investigators access to the vehicle. Tonko represents the Amsterdam area, where many of the 20 victims of the crash lived. 

Tonko indicated the NTSB would build a structure at New York State Troop G headquarters to house the limousine, and that they are hopeful they will be able to recall an employee who was furloughed by the government shutdown to continue the crash investigation.

After Tonko's issued his statement, Dolline Hatchett, deputy director of the NTSB, issued a clarifying statement.

"The Schoharie County Court recently verified for the NTSB that the agency was within its statutory authority to gain access to the limousine involved in the Schoharie accident to conduct its safety investigations," Hatchett wrote. "As a result, the NTSB, Schoharie District Attorney's Office, New York State Police and the defense counsel still need to work out the particulars of how the agency will access the vehicle and complete its work. The NTSB has reached out to all of the parties involved to begin these discussions. Once an agreed upon path forward is determined, the NTSB will send two investigators for a limited time to do the targeted work permissible under the shutdown."

Tonko spokesman Matt Sonneborn, on Friday, blamed much of the confusion over the status of the investigation on the shutdown of the federal government, which has made communication with NTSB officials more difficult.

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