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Families of Schoharie crash victims testify in Albany

Families of Schoharie crash victims testify in Albany

Tears and anger in response to limousine crashes, as state Senate pursues legislative answers
Families of Schoharie crash victims testify in Albany
The top of a stretch limo is all that can be seen after it crashed at routes 30 and 30A in Schoharie last October.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

CAPITOL — Janet Steenburg, who lost two sons in last October's Schoharie limousine crash, couldn't get through the first sentence of a statement at Thursday's state Senate Transportation Committee hearing without her voice breaking.

Another bereaved mother took up the statement -- agreed to by all the families -- that urged legislators to take new measures to prevent a stretch limousine crash like the one on Oct. 6 at routes 30 and 30A in Schoharie that killed 20 people. Included among the victims were 17 young adult passengers, the driver, and two pedestrians. Most of those who died were from the Amsterdam area.

"You can listen to testimony for four hours and then go back to your offices and go on with your lives, but we can't," said Jill Richardson-Perez, the mother of crash victim Matt Coons, who read the statement into the record.

The committee on Thursday heard a day of emotional and sometimes angry testimony. Among those speaking were the families of four young women killed and four others injured in a 2015 stretch limousine collision on Long Island. They also called for more state action. Some said action that might have prevented the Schoharie crash should have been taken sooner.

“New York state dropped the ball on this numerous times. This never should have been allowed to happen," Steenburg told the committee later, after recovering her composure.

The hearing at the Legislative Office Building at the Capitol was the first public testimony by victims of the Schoharie crash, which has thrown a harsh light on the limousine industry and state regulators. The stretched 2001 Ford Expedition was on the road despite having failed at least two state inspections during 2018, with faulty brakes being one of the issues cited both times.

The hearing's focus was on whether additional state legislation is needed, even after the state budget adopted in April established a new felony crime for operators who knowingly put a faulty limousine on the road and one or more fatalities result. The budget also took a number of steps to crack down on limousine inspection violations.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Sen. Timothy Kennedy, D-Buffalo, said he wants to see additional legislation before the end of the current legislative session in June.

"No one should have to get into a rented limousine and have to wonder whether it is safe," Kennedy said.

The National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate the cause of the Schoharie crash, and a civil lawsuit filed by one victim's family has laid at least some of the blame on the design of the Route 30 intersection. The vehicle passed through a stop sign at high speed after coming down a hill, killing two people in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store before abruptly stopping in a small ravine. Those inside suffered traumatic injuries.

A Schoharie County grand jury, meanwhile, has charged Nauman Hussain, 29, the operator of Prestige Limousine of Wilton, with 20 counts of second-degree manslaughter and 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide, alleging he knowingly put a faulty vehicle on the road with a driver who didn't have the proper license to operate the vehicle. Hussain, who has pleaded not guilty, is free on bail pending trial.

Family members said limousines should be required to have seat belts for all passengers, protections against side-impact crashes like the one on Long Island, and there should be mandatory training for all limousine drivers.

"These vehicles are death traps. Action needs to be taken," said Mindy Grabina, whose daughter was among those killed in the Long Island crash.

Industry representatives, however, said the transportation industry doesn't need new regulations on vehicles so much as different state agencies -- specifically, the state Department of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Transportation -- need to communicate with each other about limousine inspections. The Prestige limousine was inspected at a DMV inspection station after failing the DOT inspection that is required of large-capacity vehicles, including stretch limousines.

“We have enough regulation," said David Brown, president of Premiere Transportation in Albany and a director of the Limousine Bus Taxi Operators of Upstate New York. "How can we make things better? The answer is communication -- better communications between state agencies, the Department of Transportation and Department of Motor Vehicles and the state police.”

“Let me reach out to the families and say this is a tragedy that never should have happened," said Kevin Barwell, a limo operator in the Buffalo area and president of the upstate association. “In our business, the legitimate companies never put profits before safety. We have been put under the microscope and punished for one bad operator.”

Barwell said retrofitting older limousines with seat belts or airbags would be costly and possibly ineffective, but he noted that newer limousines have those features.

The industry representatives readily agreed to one suggestion from family members -- that commercial drivers be required to have criminal background checks and be subject to periodic drug testing.

Kennedy reiterated during the day that he wants to see legislative action taken this year. Whether that will happen is unclear.

“We will be taking all the information we got from the families, analyzing it, coming forward with legislation for this session," Kennedy said after hearing the families' testimony. "My goal is to make New York state a leader in the nation as it comes to limousine safety.”

With the state Senate out of session for the weekend, the hearing was attended by only three senators: Kennedy, Sen. James Gaughran, D-Long Island, and Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, whose district includes the residences of many of those who were killed.

Tedisco noted that one Schoharie victim, Patrick Cushing, was an information technology specialist with the state Senate who had been in his office to fix a copier just the night before the crash. “We’ve got to take action," Tedisco said. "The most important thing is to get something done that makes a difference.”

Also on Thursday, state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, promoted legislation he has introduced to establish an online database on stretch limousines.The legislation would create a database of all carriers that operate stretch limousines where consumers can find important information (i.e. company record/violations, current vehicle inspections and driver licensing information).

“This information is important for consumer protection and right now it’s not so easy to find,” Santabarbara said. “In the age of smartphones and technology, making this information public and readily available to consumers -- in the case of prom season, concerned parents -- provides an easy way to check important information before hiring anyone."

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

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