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Much unresolved on Schoharie limo crash anniversary

Much unresolved on Schoharie limo crash anniversary

Congress and state Legislature so far haven't acted on safety issues
Much unresolved on Schoharie limo crash anniversary
Friends and family console each other during the Reflections Memorial Foundation Commemorative Service
Photographer: Erica Miller/Daily Gazette Photographer

It was a sunny, holiday-weekend Saturday afternoon a year ago when an aging stretch limousine with the New York license plate "TOGALUX1" barreled through a stop sign and crashed after coming down a long Schoharie hill, killing 20 people.

It was a tragedy of historic proportions for the scenic Schoharie Valley and for the Amsterdam area, hometown of many of the victims.

On the first anniversary of the worst U.S. surface transportation crash in more than a decade, almost none of the issues the crash raised are settled: The searches for civil and criminal responsibility continue, and flaws in how the federal and state governments deal with limousines have been exposed, but not addressed. Even as the families continue to grieve, legislative remedies have remained elusive.

The grieving families have asked for privacy on the anniversary, but they earlier released a statement through attorneys expressing their frustration with the slow pace of progress.

“We are still seeking justice and hoping the investigation and prosecution prevents tragedies like this from occurring in the
future," the statement said. "A year later, nothing has changed. No one has been held accountable for this tragedy and this delayed justice keeps our families in limbo reliving the traumatic loss of our loved ones. This crash has changed all of our lives forever and we are still struggling to attempt daily life without our loved ones."

But in the days leading up to the anniversary, new information has emerged, along with fresh ideas for addressing limousine safety.

Just last week there were major new developments, as the National Transportation Safety Board released an interim report finding a need for new national limousine seat belt standards, and federal legislators -- standing with some family members in many victims' hometown of Amsterdam -- proposing legislation to enact key recommendations.

Though none of the passengers was wearing a seat belt, the NTSB found the belts in the limo weren't easily accessible -- and in any event, seating broke away during the crash. "The passenger seat belt systems in the Schoharie crash limousine were poorly designed and would not have provided adequate protection," the NTSB concluded in the report issued Wednesday.

A state police investigation determined that the vehicle probably suffered catastrophic brake failure and that the limousine had failed state Department of Transportation commercial vehicle inspections for issues including the condition of its brakes. It nevertheless remained on the road, having been inspected by a discount tire shop without the authority to inspect large limousines.

Nauman Hussain, 29, of Cohoes, who operated Prestige Limousine of Wilton, faces 20 counts each of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, with trial scheduled for March. The company is owned by his father, Shahed Hussain, a former FBI informant who has remained outside the United States since the crash. Nauman Hussain is free on bail.

The proposed congressional bills, which have bipartisan support from the Capital Region's congressional delegation, would establish new standards for limousine seat belts and increase federal oversight of "stretched" vehicles, those that have their seating capacities increased by after-market companies that don't have to meet the same safety standards as original vehicle manufacturers.

"Almost one year after the heartbreaking stretch limousine accident in Schoharie took the lives of 20 New Yorkers, the need to improve the safety of these dangerous vehicles and the roads and highways they travel on remains the same," said U.S. Sen Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., the Senate majority leader. "With the first of NTSB’s safety recommendations now in-hand, we now have a road map of exactly what type of federal rules and regulations we need to get enacted to do so, and we’re going to do just that."

With congressmen Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, and Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck, each sponsoring the bills in the House, and Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., sponsoring them in the Senate, the bills are expected to be introduced soon after Congress convenes Oct. 15, a Tonko spokesman said.

The legislators at the news conference Thursday in Amsterdam were all Democrats, but the Capital Region's only Republican member of Congress also supports the package of bills.

“While the investigation is still ongoing, NTSB’s recent recommendations make it clear that critical gaps in the federal standards are undermining the safety of passengers," said U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville. "Our proposal will close existing loopholes in the limousine safety standards and keep unsafe vehicles off our roads. I am looking forward to working with my New York colleagues on this comprehensive and bipartisan legislation to ensure such senseless tragedies never happen again.”

Some transportation safety advocates, however, are skeptical about whether congressional actions will replace the encouraging words, giving the political atmosphere in Washington, D.C., and the Trump administration's past resistance to government regulation.

“While we concur with NTSB’s recommendations, based on the administration’s complete failure since day one to issue new car safety regulations, it is unlikely there will be any significant new federal requirements regarding limousine safety,” said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington.

The crash on the Saturday of Columbus Day weekend occurred when a 2001 Ford Excursion limousine carrying 17 passengers on a birthday celebration outing came down a long hill on Route 30 and ran at high speed through the stop sign at the T-intersection with Route 30A, hitting a vehicle in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store and then crashing into a ravine. The driver and all passengers were killed, along with two pedestrians in the Apple Barrel parking lot.

State legislators are also frustrated, with the state Assembly and Senate having passed different limousine safety packages near the end of the legislative session in June, when it was too late to resolve the differences between the bills. The Legislature isn't due to return until January, but Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, thinks the issue is important enough to merit a special session.

“We need to take immediate action," said Santabarbara, who represents the Amsterdam area and has introduced several bills on improving state limousine safety. "There is nothing more important than this right now. There are a number of basic safety issues that have been raised.”

Meanwhile, civil cases are being brought by the estates of the victims, with two more filed last week. Those wrongful-death lawsuits variously named the Hussains, New York state, Mavis Discount Tire and the Apple Barrel as potentially liable for the deaths.

Prior to the crash, the intersection had a history of crashes involving heavy vehicles, to the point that the state Department of Transportion banned large trucks from coming down the Route 30 hill in  2015, leading some people to lay some of the blame on the state-maintained intersection's design.

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

 

 

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