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Agreement reached: NTSB to be granted access to limo in fatal Schoharie crash

Agreement reached: NTSB to be granted access to limo in fatal Schoharie crash

NTSB staff are expected to photograph the vehicle later Tuesday
Agreement reached: NTSB to be granted access to limo in fatal Schoharie crash
An NTSB investigator at the scene in October
Photographer: Gazette file photo

SCHOHARIE -- The National Transportation Safety Board was granted immediate access Tuesday to photograph the stretch limousine that crashed on Oct. 6, killing 20 people.

The access agreement came out of a conference between the NTSB, state police, Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery and the defense lawyer for Nauman Hussain of Cohoes, the operator of the limousine company. Hussain is facing criminal charges in connection with the crash.

The NTSB has been fighting for access to the vehicle since shortly after the crash, in which 17 passengers, the driver and two pedestrians were killed. The crash happened at the intersection of routes 30 and 30A, when the vehicle careened past a stop sign, through a small parking lot and into a ravine.

The Schoharie Limo Tragedy: The victims, the investigation, the community outpouring
More from this week: Our top stories Jan. 26-Feb. 1, 2019

With Hussain facing a charge of criminally negligent homicide and the state police investigation ongoing, NTSB officials have been frustrated by Mallery in their efforts to examine the vehicle as part of their safety investigation. The dispute prompted a sharp exchange of letters between the parties over the past two months and, finally, to a judge getting involved.

"My concern is that evidence not be tampered with or destroyed," Mallery said in court prior to the agreement being reached. She said she is also concerned the NTSB could leak information she believes should be confidential while the criminal case is pending.

Under the agreement reached Tuesday, as County Court Judge George Barlett III presided over the conference, the NTSB may withhold some of its findings until the criminal case of Nauman Hussain is over.

NTSB investigators were expected to conduct close visual inspections and take photographs of the vehicle Tuesday at state police Troop G headquarters in Latham, with further access being granted in the coming weeks.

Until now, the NTSB -- its two lead investigators attended Tuesday's hearing -- has not been allowed within 15 feet of the stretched 2001 Ford Excursion, the condition of which is central to both the state police and NTSB investigations.

Under the agreement, the NTSB may wire-brush parts of the vehicle to make its components easier to photograph, but wire brushing in specific areas will be subject to approval by state police and would be done in their presence.

The condition of the limousine's brakes is a critical issue in both probes. Because there is little brake fluid available for testing, the NTSB won't get to take its own sample, but state police agreed to share the results of their tests on the brake fluid.

Also under the agreement, a pending state police search warrant to remove the transmission and torque converter from the limousine will be approved, once the NTSB has done its initial inspection. The NTSB will have access to those items afterward and, if possible, will do its inspection at the same time as Hussain's defense team.

Within about two weeks, the agreement also states, state police will be allowed to move the limousine from its location under a tent to a more-permanent indoor location.

The agreement was reached after the parties spent about a half-hour stating the their cases in Bartlett's courtroom, after which Bartlett sent them to a conference room to work out their differences. They emerged about an hour later and placed the agreement on the record.

NTSB General Counsel Kathleen Silbaugh and Mallery both refused to comment afterward. In court, they said 95 percent of an agreement had already been reached before the conference, but in the end, the dispute required the court hearing.

More from this week: Our top stories Jan. 26-Feb. 1, 2019

"I tried hard to avoid interfering, but something had to be done," Bartlett said in court. "All I'm interested in is that everybody be able to perform their functions."

Hussain and his defense attorney, Lee Kindlon, were in court for the proceedings. Kindlon said he expects Hussain to be indicted.

"I expect, at some point this year, to be here defending him on the criminal charges," Kindlon said.

The crash, the victims of which were young adults mostly from the Amsterdam area, was the deadliest transportation accident in the United States since 2009 -- and the deadliest motor vehicle accident since 2005.

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

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