2018 Schoharie, New York limousine crash

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2018 Schoharie, New York limousine crash
Date October 6, 2018 (2018-10-06)
Time 1:55 p.m.
Location Intersection of New York state routes 30 and 30A, Schoharie, New York, United States
Coordinates 42°42′00″N 74°18′06″W / 42.7001°N 74.3018°W / 42.7001; -74.3018Coordinates: 42°42′00″N 74°18′06″W / 42.7001°N 74.3018°W / 42.7001; -74.3018
Cause Under investigation
Deaths 20 (18 in vehicle, 2 bystanders)
Arrest(s) 1
Accused Nauman Hussain (Company operator)
Charges Criminally negligent homicide

In the early afternoon of October 6, 2018, a stretch limousine crashed at the junction of New York state routes 30 and 30A north of Schoharie (/skˈhɛər/ skoh-HAIR-ee), 40 miles (64 km) west of Albany, killing 20—the driver, all 17 passengers, and two pedestrians who were in a nearby parking lot.[1][2] It is the deadliest transportation-related disaster in the United States since the 2009 Colgan Air Flight 3407 crash outside Buffalo killed 50;[3] it is also the deadliest road transportation disaster in the U.S. since a 2005 bus fire in Wilmer, Texas, killed 23 nursing home residents evacuating from the path of Hurricane Rita.[4]

The passengers were mostly from communities around the Capital District, primarily Amsterdam, where they had gathered to begin their trip. They were on their way to celebrate a 30th birthday at Brewery Ommegang near Cooperstown. Among them were four sisters and two recently married couples. Investigation of the accident has revealed pre-existing problems with the limousine, the driver and the limousine company; the owner was arrested on a charge of criminally negligent homicide.[5]


Axel Steenburg and his new wife Amy, of Amsterdam, New York, 30 miles (48 km) west of Albany, had planned a group outing for themselves, their siblings, and close friends at Brewery Ommegang, south of Cooperstown on October 6, 2018, to celebrate her 30th birthday.[6] So that all guests could drink freely, Steenburg arranged for a party bus to take the group there and back. On the morning of the party, the group, ranging in age from 24 to 34, gathered at the Steenburg home. It included all three of Amy's sisters, two of whom were also accompanied by their husbands, and Axel's brother.[7]

The party's reservation at Ommergang was for noon that day, but before that, Axel learned that the bus he had arranged for had broken down. He was able to arrange another ride through Prestige Limousine Services, a small operator based in Gansevoort, north of Albany outside Saratoga Springs. They were able to send a stretch limousine that would hold 18 people, one more than was in the group that would make the trip.[6][a]

Prestige dispatched a 2001 Ford Excursion expanded to seat the additional passengers. Unbeknownst to Steenburg or anyone in his group, the vehicle had failed two inspections earlier that year. The issues that had led to those failures included its brakes, and the state Department of Transportation (DOT) had ordered it to be taken out of service in September, with inspectors placing a sticker reading "unserviceable" across its windshield, but it had been removed before it was driven to Amsterdam. It had also been listed for sale on Craigslist two days earlier, advertised as "DOT ready".[6]

Driver Scott Lisinicchia, of Lake George, had complained at times about the safety of the company's vehicles. His wife recalled having overheard him say he would not drive a particular vehicle at some times when Prestige called. While he had driven trucks in the past and held a valid Commercial Driver's License, it lacked the endorsement needed for him to transport more than 10 passengers at a time.[6] Lisinicchia had been cited for driving without this endorsement; he also had several outstanding traffic tickets in Saratoga Springs, enough that his license should have been suspended. However, a clerical error had prevented the paperwork from being filed.[8]


A two-lane paved road curves gently ahead of the viewer in a mostly wooded area under a mostly cloudy sky. There is a left-turn lane immediately ahead and another road leaving at a right angle to the right, going slightly uphill, with steel guardrails on the right. Black and white signs at the right identify the road ahead as "30A", the road to the right as "30", and state that the road ahead will lead the driver to an "88", signed in red, white and blue
The accident site, photographed in 2012. The limo came down NY 30, from the right, and went across the road into the parking lot whose driveway is at left

Delayed by the change in vehicle, the group left Amsterdam late, well after their noon reservation at Ommergang. The Excursion left the city by heading south on New York State Route 30 (NY 30), a long winding two-lane rural road.[6]

Text messages from the passengers to friends and family indicated that the limousine's problems were obvious to those riding in it. Erin McGowan wrote her aunt at 1:37 p.m. that the limousine was not high-quality and its engine was apparently unusually loud. "When we get to the brewery we will all b deaf", McGowan wrote,[9] with several Face with Tears of Joy emojis appended. Three minutes later, Allison King texted her fiancé that the brakes were burning and the vehicle was coasting.[6]

In Duanesburg, the 20-mile (32 km) section of Route 30 the limousine was traveling becomes hillier as the road veers east into the Schoharie Creek valley and undulates more.[10] Just north of the blinker at NY 7, the highway reaches a height of land at 1,227 feet (374 m) in elevation, from which it descends almost 600 feet (180 m) in the next two miles (3.2 km) to its junction with NY 30A.[11] As it crosses over Interstate 88, signs direct trucks to use Route 7 instead. For those drivers who continue south on Route 30, many more signs warn drivers about the steep grade ahead, through which the speed limit is 55 miles per hour (89 km/h).[6]

At the bottom of the hill is a three-way intersection where NY 30A forks off to the north while NY 30 turns southward toward Schoharie, two miles (3.2 km) away. Southbound traffic on NY 30A must stop; a sign warns of this several hundred feet uphill of the intersection.[6] When the Excursion reached the junction, at 1:55 p.m., it did not stop.[12]

The vehicle continued into the parking lot of the nearby Apple Barrel Country Store where it struck a parked 2015 Toyota Highlander, which in turn struck two pedestrians in the lot,[13] and then came to a stop in a gully.[14] The store manager told reporters that customers in the store parking lot were killed when the limo sped down the hill "probably over 60 mph [97 km/h]".[15] Later it emerged that two pedestrians in the parking lot were killed after being struck by the Highlander, which was driven into a drainage ditch 50 feet (15 m) away.[13] All 18 people in the limousine were killed.[16] All but one were pronounced dead at the scene; that survivor died after being airlifted to an Albany hospital.[15]

An eyewitness claimed the crash sounded like an explosion, and when she exited her parked car, she saw a body on the ground, and then registered the screaming from bystanders.[17] Another eyewitness told reporters she saw "...this large van, a very unusual looking vehicle out here in Schoharie in the bushes and really wrecked, hit a tree", and she watched first responders who broke windows to get victims out.[18]


The dead were all adults, aged 24 to 71. Eight of the passengers were married couples. Four passengers were sisters, two were brothers..[19] Autopsies later found the cause of death for all to be multiple severe traumatic blunt force injuries.[20]


Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were at the scene of the crash.[21] A state trooper told reporters that they had deployed a reconstruction unit, facial identification and a drone in order to gather data about the crash and the victims.[16]

The family that owns the Apple Barrel Country Store, told reporters that the intersection and hill are a recurring issue. Reportedly, tractor-trailers have repeatedly come down the hill too fast and entered the store's parking lot, and that while improvements had been made, the intersection was still dangerous.[13] The intersection had been redone in 2008 due to a fatal accident, but it has not stopped the issue.[22]

NTSB head Robert Sumwalt told reporters two days after the crash that it was too early to say whether the limo had been speeding at the time; the agency was focusing on human and mechanical factors as causes. It was, however, a "high-energy impact" that had severely damaged the front and left portions of the vehicle, and, Sumwalt intimated, driven the engine into the passenger compartment. There were no skid marks on the pavement, suggesting the driver had not applied the brakes, or that they had not been functioning well, before reaching the stop sign. Investigators would be looking at the airbag control module for data that might answer their questions.[9]

Robert Patnaude, commander of State Police Troop G, which patrols the Capital District, said on October 9 that his agency was treating the case as a criminal investigation due to the level of negligence possibly involved. "We'll determine if there's any criminal culpability on the part of anyone," he told the media. "If there is, we'll hold them accountable."[23]

The state police's investigation led to some tension with the NTSB team. Since the former investigation is a criminal case, it takes priority, and the limousine remains in NYSP custody until it is finished. Almost two weeks after the crash, the federal investigators complained privately to the Associated Press that they had not been able to even look over the vehicle.[24]

The day after the article was published, Senator Charles Schumer told the media that an NTSB investigator had been "granted limited access" to the limousine. The state police issued a statement confirming that, and also noted that it was not the first time their federal counterparts had been able to view the Excursion. However, they were not yet permitted to examine it as they wanted to until the criminal investigation had concluded, and the defense attorney for arrested suspect Nauman Hussain and any investigators he had hired had had a chance to do so as well, an issue the NYSP said the NTSB was fully aware of.[25]

The state police promised the NTSB its investigators would get their chance to more fully examine the limo in the following weeks. Schumer said that the NTSB would likely release a report on the crash in three months;[25] a board spokesman clarified that that report would likely be preliminary. The investigation, and the full final report, could possibly take a year or two.[20]

On October 22, the state police announced that it would soon be allowing Hussain's defense attorney, Lee Kindlon, and defense experts, to look at the limousine, along with the prosecution. NTSB investigators, said state police spokesman Beau Duffy, had been able to look at the vehicle's exterior but not yet examine its internal mechanics.[26]

State police[edit]

The state police concentrated their investigation on factors specific to the accident: the vehicle, its driver and Prestige Limousine.[23] Within a week of the crash, they had enough evidence to make an arrest.


2000-2004 Ford Excursion stretch limousine, similar in configuration to accident vehicle

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said at an October 8 news conference that Scott Lisinicchia, the driver of the limo, did not have a Commercial Driver's License with a passenger endorsement required to operate the vehicle. Cuomo added that the limo was a "chopped vehicle", cut and extended, needing a federal certificate to operate, which the limo involved in the crash did not have. It had also failed inspection the previous month due to not only the absence of this certificate, but mechanical issues like a hydraulic antilock brake warning indicator light that stayed on, a dangling brake line that could have made contact with a tire, defective emergency exits[27] and defective windshield wipers, making it illegal to operate on public roads in the state until those issues were corrected.

The inspection further noted that similar issues had been found in March; at that time the vehicle was also cited as having 18 seats installed, in excess of its designed passenger capacity of 10.[23][27] Prestige Limousines, the owner and operator, was told to cease and desist from further limousine operations until further notice.[28] It was later reported that different license plates had been affixed to the limousine at its March and September inspections; however the Vehicle Identification Number had not.[29]

Two days before the crash, the limousine had been listed for sale on Craigslist. The asking price was $9,000; the seller claimed it was "DOT ready" and was in "excellent condition" with 180,000 miles (290,000 km) on it. The seller did not identify themselves but the phone number given as a contact was one that Prestige had used.[30]

The aunt of victim Erin McGowan told the media that shortly before the crash her niece had texted her with concerns about the vehicle's condition. The limo had been a last-second replacement for a bus originally rented that broke down,[6] and its engine was apparently unusually loud. "When we get to the brewery we will all b deaf", McGowan wrote,[9] with several Face with Tears of Joy emojis appended, at 1:37 p.m. Three minutes later, Allison King texted her fiancé that the brakes were burning and the vehicle was coasting.[6]

On October 15, the Albany Times-Union reported that the limousine had received a valid inspection sticker from the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), which it should not have. Vehicles designed to carry more than 10 passengers are subject to inspection by the DOT, and repair shops that do inspections are legally required to refuse them to such vehicles. The limousine also had livery license plates, which again it could not have legally borne due to its high passenger capacity.[31]

The newspaper, as well as other limousine company operators around the state it spoke with, questioned how Prestige was able to continue operations with all the violations it had accumulated and the lack of proper permits; in their experience the state was diligent in enforcing its regulations. One owner said it was his understanding that if more than 20% of an operator's vehicles have been declared unserviceable, the state can force it to cease operations, an order only a court can override; records kept by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which also has authority over limousine operators, showed that Prestige had 80% of its vehicles unserviceable at the time of the accident.[31]


A couple who had had the same limo, driven by Lisinicchia, a year earlier, when Prestige had done business as Saratoga Luxury Limousine, for their wedding, told Albany station WNYT that the limo was in poor condition then. Its exterior was flecked with rust, some of which was covered by duct tape. They, too, found its engine loud. Their complaints to the company's management were dismissed initially and only resulted in a partial refund.[8]

The couple also recalled that Lisinicchia had been erratic and made dangerous moves such as backing up to make a turn he had missed while on a busy road. They had noticed empty beer cans in the rear as well, and said he had an unidentified passenger in the front seat all day. When they asked him about these things he responded belligerently and profanely.[8]

A driver who had worked for a different limousine company that used the same property as Prestige and sometimes shared its fleet told WTEN that he had driven the Excursion in 2015 and it was "absolutely unsafe". In particular, the brakes barely worked. "I was terrified", he said. "You just couldn't stop. You really had to put your foot on the brake." When the vehicle had begun smoking during a prom, the childrens' parents refused to let them ride in it. Neither Prestige nor his employer, the driver said, did anything more than minimal maintenance work. After leaving the company he reported the vehicle to the state.[32]

Lisinicchia's family said he had been given an unsafe vehicle to drive and would never have put passengers in harm's way.[33] His wife said he had been driving for Prestige part-time for a year. She recalled overhearing him on the phone, when the company called with an assignment, complaining that he would not drive a particular vehicle and requesting another one.[34]


Further investigation led to disclosures that other Prestige vehicles had failed inspections in the past. The company's address was a hotel in Gansevoort, north of Albany, and its owner, Shahed Hussain was provisionally identified by The New York Times as a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) informant in the Newburgh Four terrorism case who had previously avoided prosecution for his alleged involvement in a scheme to sell false identification while he was employed at the state's Department of Motor Vehicles. Police were unable to interview him after the accident as he had returned to his native Pakistan,[9] reportedly for health reasons.[27]

Hussain's son Nauman spoke with the police in his father's stead. His attorney, Lee Kindlon, suggested the crash was due to Lisinicchia's unfamiliarity with the intersection. "You just can't stop at something like that," he told the Albany Times-Union. "I think the state Department of Transportation [DOT] is just looking to point a finger."[23]

Authorities had also found issues with the Hussains' maintenance of the Gansevoort hotel Prestige used as its business address. Neighbors had frequently complained about the condition of the property; in early 2017 the state Department of Health shut it down and temporarily evicted the generally low-income long-term residents after a sewer line failed. The Hussains attributed it to sabotage by a tenant they had evicted; an inspection found, however, that it had been poorly installed, with improper fittings and no support.[33]


While the NTSB is also interested in what the state police learn about the Excursion, Lisinicchia and Prestige, they will also be looking into some larger issues raised by the crash that could have contributed to not only it but other accidents: the state of limousine regulation generally, and the design of the intersection.[35]

Limousine safety regulation[edit]

"This didn’t have to happen", Helaine Olen wrote in a Washington Post column after the crash. "There are massive loopholes in the federal safety regulations governing limousines—loopholes so large you can, well, drive a jumbo stretch limousine through them." Primarily, she wrote, vehicles that have to meet strict safety standards when manufactured do not have to be re-examined after being expanded. Efforts to change this at the federal and state level have generally failed in the face of vigorous opposition from the industries involved.[36]

Raul Arbalaez, an engineer with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, agreed. "They don't have to go back and prove that they meet any of the crash safety criteria", he said of vehicle expanders and the limousine operators. The Excursion that crashed in Schoharie, he speculated, likely weighed at least 10,000 pounds (4.5 t), even without accounting for its passengers. "That is a lot to ask of the same four tires and brakes that vehicle came with."[37]

After it was reported that the limousine in the crash had been cited several times for insufficient braking capacity, defined as having less than 80% of the brakes' designed capacity, Frank Figueroa, a California vehicle constructor who had not worked on the Excursion told NBC News that that failure might have resulted from constricted brake lines. While the original brake lines to the front wheels are retained when a vehicle is expanded into a limousine, he said, it is necessary to extend those that reach the rear wheels. For that reason, the extended lines are usually made of steel to avoid any risk of obstruction or constriction.[38]

Vehicles such as the Excursion used by Prestige are associated in the industry with "third-tier guys" based in smaller cities, Figueroa said. Nonetheless, he maintained, as manufactured it had an 11,000-pound (5.0 t) towing capacity. If its original braking system were in place, it should have been able to come to a complete stop at the intersection.[38]

Another issue relevant to the accident was seat belt requirements, or the lack thereof, for passengers in limousines. New York, like many states, only requires passengers in the front seat to use them. Expanders are not even required to add them, nor any additional side airbags.[36] "[W]earing seat belts does save lives", Sumwalt told the media. "Whether or not it would've made a difference here or not, that remains to be seen." Peter Goelz, a former NTSB managing director, said the crash would be "a watershed event for the limousine industry", as he predicted that the lack of or failure to use seat belts would be cited as a major cause for the loss of life in the accident and rules would be changed to require them.[35]

Federal and state responses[edit]

After a 2015 limousine crash on Long Island that killed four, Schumer, the Senate's current minority leader, had asked the NTSB to study limousine accidents as the beginning of an effort to improve safety and regulation.[36] He and Kirsten Gillibrand, New York's other U.S. Senator, along with Connecticut senator Richard Blumenthal, again wrote to the board after the accident, saying it pointed to the need to improve regulation and safety standards for limousines and the companies that operate them. New York state legislators also have introduced bills to improve limousine safety.[39]

State senator Simcha Felder's bill would ban the use of any stretch limousines older than 10 years and require a minimum of $2 million in liability insurance coverage, as well as changing procedures for vehicles that fail inspection.[40] Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, who has made limousine safety a cause since 2006, introduced several bills in her chamber to implement recommendations made by a grand jury that investigated the 2015 crash, including requiring seat belt use.[41]

A lobbyist for the industry told the Times-Union that many of these bills seemed premature since the cause of the accident was not yet known and the state's regulations for limos were already among the strictest in the U.S.[41] Nonetheless, the state has already made some administrative responses, changing responsibility for inspecting limos to the DMV from the DOT and reclassifying any vehicle designed to carry more than nine passengers in addition to the driver as a bus.[40]

Arrest of Nauman Hussain[edit]

On October 10, state police arrested Nauman Hussain in Watervliet and charged him with criminally negligent homicide,[5] a Class E felony, the least serious under the New York Penal Law.[42] He was taken to Schoharie County Court in Cobleskill and arraigned, after which he pleaded not guilty to the charge, posted $150,000 bond and was released. District Attorney Susan Mallery asked for higher bail than usual to be set for a nonviolent felony, and for the court to require that Hussain surrender any passports he might have, due to the perception of a flight risk. Upon his arrest, she told the court, his vehicle was packed with his personal belongings,[5] including several suitcases.[29]

Kindlon said his client had no passports to surrender (although it was later reported that he had surrendered his U.S. passport[43]), and was not even a citizen of Pakistan. Hussain had not been fleeing, he said, but moving in response to death threats he had received;[5] investigators did not find that claim credible.[29] Kindlon said he, too, had received threats, and as a result, there was a greater police presence in the courtroom.[5]

If convicted, Hussain faces from 15 months to four years in prison. Kindlon added, however, that he had been advised the state could press 20 counts of the charge, one for each victim, and ask for the terms to be served consecutively, which would result in a 26​13–80-year sentence. He complained that the state had "jumped the gun", since Mallery had told him the day before that charges might not be filed for months, due to the seriousness of the accident.[5]

Kindlon conceded the limo had minor safety issues which the state told Prestige to fix, but said it did not reach the criminal level. He claimed that DOT had evidence that the brakes had been repaired in June. When asked why the state would not have a record of this repair, he told reporters, "That's a great question for DOT".[5]

A DOT spokesman had previously stated that in the wake of failing the September inspection, a large sticker indicating the vehicle was "unserviceable" was placed on the windshield;[33] the sticker also has language warning that anyone other than an inspector who removes it can be fined for doing so.[31] Even if all the violations had been corrected, the company would have been required to have the vehicle reinspected in its entirety. He called Kindlon's claim that they were fixed "categorically false".[33]

The arrest was not Hussain's first. After a 2014 traffic stop in Cohoes, police said he and his brother Shahyer, who was driving, attempted to pass themselves off as the other. Police eventually learned their true identities. Shahyer's license had been revoked after several dozen suspensions; Nauman's license had been suspended several times but was valid at the time. Nauman was charged with false personation and conspiracy, both misdemeanors; the disposition of the charges is not known.[44]

It was reported that a Bentley Continental GT owned by Shahyer had been destroyed in a suspicious 2013 fire. Suspicions first arose at a Queensbury garage after the mechanic repairing it found that damage to the transmission appeared to have been deliberately inflicted and was thus not covered by the warranty. However, no charges were ever filed.[43]

On October 23, prosecutors began presenting evidence against Hussain to a Schoharie County grand jury, which will decide if there is enough evidence to formally indict him.[45]


Governor Cuomo released a statement which expressed his heartbreak for the victims, commended first responders for helping through the night, and noted the state police were working with federal and local authorities to investigate the crash.[46] Schumer asked God's blessing through Twitter for the victims' families and first responders.[47]

The Apple Barrel Country Store began to collect donations for local first responders, a mostly volunteer organization, and planned a vigil to honor the victims at the store on October 9.[48] The family that owns it said it was establishing a non-profit organization to build a permanent memorial at the crash site next to the store. They hoped it could be completed by the first anniversary of the crash.[49]

Thousands attended an Amsterdam candlelight vigil for the victims along the banks of the Mohawk River on the evening of October 8; many residents of the city knew at least one of the dead.[7] Since three of the dead had been state employees, Cuomo ordered all state government agencies to fly the flags outside their buildings at half-staff on October 11.[50]

Funeral services for eight victims—the four sisters, their three husbands and one husband's brother—were held at St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic Church in the city a week after the crash. Hundreds paid respects at the wake the day before, including Albany-area U.S. Representative Paul Tonko and state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, whose district includes Amsterdam.[51][52]

One victim, Adam Jackson, had been a Republican deputy commissioner of elections for Montgomery County. His death had distracted his coworkers so much that the absentee ballots they sent out for the November elections accidentally omitted a line for Republican congressional candidate Joe Vitollo. When the mistake was discovered, new ballots were mailed to 89 voters in the town of Amsterdam who had received the incorrect ones.[53]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Three of the original invitees had chosen not to attend[6]


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