2018 Schoharie, New York limousine crash
|Date||October 6, 2018|
|Location||Intersection of New York state routes 30 and 30A, Schoharie, New York, United States|
|Deaths||20 (18 in vehicle, 2 bystanders)|
|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 (// 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. It is the deadliest transportation-related disaster in the nation since the 2009 Colgan Air Flight 3407 crash outside Buffalo killed 50; 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.
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.
Shortly before 2 p.m. on October 6, 2018, an SUV-style 2001 Ford Excursion stretch limousine traveling southbound on New York State Route 30 (NY 30) in northern Schoharie County failed to stop at the T intersection with New York State Route 30A (NY 30A) two miles (3.2 km) north of Schoharie. The vehicle continued into the parking lot of the nearby Apple Barrel Country Store where it struck a parked 2015 Toyota Highlander and then came to a stop in a gully. 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]". 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. All 18 people in the limousine were killed.
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. 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.
The dead were all adults, aged 24 to 71. The limo passengers were on their way to the Ommegang Brewery in Cooperstown, 40 miles (64 km) west of Schoharie, to celebrate a passenger's 30th birthday, another was celebrating his 34th.
Eight of the passengers were married couples. Four passengers were sisters, two were brothers.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were at the scene of the crash. 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.
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. The intersection had been redone in 2008 due to a fatal accident, but it has not stopped the issue.
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.
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."
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 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. Prestige Limousines, the owner and operator, was told to cease and desist from further limousine operations until further notice. 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.
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.
The aunt of one of the victims, 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, and its engine was apparently unusually loud. "When we get to the brewery we will all b deaf", McGowan wrote, with several Face with Tears of Joy emojis appended, at 1:37 p.m. Three minutes later, Allison King, another passenger, texted her fiancé that the brakes were burning and the vehicle was coasting.
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.
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.
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.
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. WNYT also learned that Lisinicchia 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.
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.
Lisinicchia's family said he had been given an unsafe vehicle to drive and would never have put passengers in harm's way. 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.
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, reportedly for health reasons.
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."
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.
On October 10 state police arrested Nauman Hussain in Watervliet and charged him with criminally negligent homicide, a Class E felony, the least serious under the New York Penal Law. 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, including several suitcases.
Kindlon said his client had no passports to surrender (although it was later reported that he had surrendered his U.S. passport), 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; investigators did not find that claim credible. Kindlon said he, too, had received threats, and as a result there was a greater police presence in the courtroom.
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 261⁄3–80-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.
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".
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; the sticker also has language warning that anyone other than an inspector who removes it can be fined for doing so. 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".
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.
It was reported that a Bentley Continental GT owned by Shahyer had been destroyed in a suspicious 2013 fire at a Queensbury garage after the mechanic repairing it had found that damage to the transmission appeared to have been deliberately inflicted and was thus not covered by the warranty; no charges were ever filed.
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. Senator Chuck Schumer asked God's blessing through Twitter for the victims' families and first responders.
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. 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.
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.
- List of disasters in the United States by death toll
- List of traffic collisions (2000–present)
- 2018 Hong Kong bus accident, also occurred on a downslope with the driver allegedly speeding, killing 19
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