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Cuomo: Limo in crash that killed 20 failed inspection

Schoharie County Sheriff Ronald Stevens, left, State Sen.

Schoharie County Sheriff Ronald Stevens, left, State Sen. James Seward, center, and Rep. John Faso (R-N.Y.) speak to reporters Monday at the scene of Saturday's fatal limousine crash in Schoharie, N.Y. Credit: AP / Hans Pennink

The driver of a limousine involved in a crash that killed 20 upstate did not have a commercial driver's license and the limousine did not meet federal or state standards, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Monday.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, which happened Saturday afternoon in Schoharie County, near Albany. The driver failed to stop at a stop sign at an intersection and crossed into the parking lot of a restaurant, hitting two pedestrians and a parked vehicle.

All 18 inside the limousine — the driver and 17 passengers — and two pedestrians died, making the crash the deadliest since February 2009 when an airplane crash near Buffalo killed 50. 

The limousine, owned by Prestige Limousine, failed a state inspection last month, Cuomo said. The vehicle also lacked a federal certification that it needed to be on the road because of its size, he said.

The state, Cuomo said, has ordered Prestige Limousine to stop operating until the federal investigation has been completed. The cause of the crash has not been determined, he said. The company is based in Gansevoort, in northern Saratoga County.

“The owner of the company had no business putting a failed vehicle on the road,” Cuomo said, adding that the owner could face consequences, both civil and criminal. 

A telephone number for the company wasn’t in service. A message left at a subsidiary of the company wasn’t immediately returned.

“It is really tragic," Cuomo told reporters at a Columbus Day parade in Manhattan. "It reminds us all that every day is precious”

NTSB investigators expected to spend all day at the intersection, the agency's chairman said Monday. 

The investigators will look at everything from the design and condition of the road to whether the passengers and driver were wearing seat belts to the condition of the limousine, Sumwalt told CNN. 

"We want to look at the design of the roadway," Sumwalt said. We know there have been other accidents at the intersection."

Sumwalt said he expects the investigators to look closely at the condition of the limousine.

"There does need to be a wake-up call about limousines," Sumwalt said. 

Also Monday, Cardinal Timothy Dolan included the victims in the prayer of the faithful at the Columbus Day Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “We remember the victims of that terrible crash upstate,” he said.

The crash occurred about 1:55 p.m. Saturday at the intersection of New York State Routes 30 and 30A in Schoharie. The limousine was traveling southwest on Route 30, which official said has a speed limit of 50 miles an hour.  

The limousine, which includes a model designed to carry 20 people, belonged to a class of vehicle required to meet state safety standards tightened last year in response to other fatal limousine crashes, including a July 2015 crash that killed four women — all from Smithtown and all in their early 20s.  

Now, in most cases, a limousine that carries 10 or more people, including the driver, must follow the state seat-belt law, according to the state Department of Transportation. The law requires the driver to wear a seat belt and bans passengers 16 and older from riding in the front seat without a seat belt. Each violation of the seat-belt law can bring a $100 fine.

Under federal law, large limousines aren’t required to have seat belts for passengers who don’t face forward, which is a configuration common for most seats in large limousines.

In the 2018 legislative session, state lawmakers proposed several safety measures aimed at limousines including one to prohibit U-turns by limousines, which led to the Cutchogue crash. That bill died in committee. 

The identities of the victims still had not be released by officials Monday. Of the 17 passengers, four were sisters celebrating the youngest one's birthday, officials said. 

On Monday, a top state lawmaker identified one of the victims as Patrick Cushing of Amsterdam, a Senate employee.

 "Patrick was an invaluable member of the Senate’s Technology Services unit based in Albany," Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, R-East Northport, said in a statement. "He was an extraordinary employee and a wonderful young man who was loved by all. He will be greatly missed by his Senate family."

A fund for the victims set up on the GoFundMe crowdfunding platform raised $7,572 of its $10,000 goal in its first day, with 194 people contributing. 

Candlelight vigils are planned for Monday night in downtown Amsterdam and Wednesday night at the Schoharie Central Schools building.

Axel and Amy Steenburg, newlyweds from Amsterdam, N.Y., rented the limousine, according to reports. The gathering was to celebrate Amy Steenburg’s 30th birthday. 

“They did the responsible thing getting a limo so they wouldn’t have to drive anywhere,” Barbara Douglas, aunt of Amy Steenburg and her three sisters also on board the limo, told reporters Sunday. She said three of the sisters were with their husbands and identified them as the Steenburgs, Abigail and Adam Jackson, Mary and Rob Dyson, and Allison King.

Douglas said the couples had several children between them who they left at home.

“They were wonderful girls,” Douglas said. “They’d do anything for you and they were very close to each other and they loved their family.”

Valerie Abeling said her niece Erin Vertucci, 34, was among the victims, with her newlywed husband, Shane McGowan, 30. The pair were on their way to the birthday party of a friend when the crash occurred. She said her own daughter had been invited along but couldn't go.

"She was a beautiful, sweet soul; he was too," Abeling told the AP.

The couple were married at a "beautiful wedding" in June at a venue in upstate New York, Abeling said. "They had everything going for them."

The Apple Barrel country store sits at the intersection of routes 30 and 30A, at the bottom of a steep hill and there is no indication a stop sign lies ahead until about 200 feet from the intersection. The southbound lane was covered in skid marks.

Store employees posted on Facebook that the store had reopened Sunday.

"We are doing our best to cope and grieve," the store said in a post. "We are a big family at the Apple Barrel, and part of the bigger family of Schoharie. We cope by being together. And that is why we are open."

David Stasko, 67, lives near the crash site. Two tractor trailers, one in the spring of 2014 and one in September 2015, shot the same intersection and ended up in his yard, he said.

Stasko said the state reworked the area after a series of crashes involving cars leaving the country store. 

 While the work improved visibility and created a gentler curve leading to the intersection, it also created a T-intersection, he said.

The governor’s office didn’t comment on the roadwork or if more changes are needed. The office did say tractor trailers were banned in that area after 2015.

The NTSB agreed to investigate some limousine crashes after calls from Sen. Chuck Schumer following the Cutchogue limo crash that killed four young women on a North Fork winery tour in 2015. 

 "Right now, with more questions than answers, it is critical for the NTSB to get to the bottom of how this happened," Schumer said.

State Police said the victims' family members can call them on a dedicated phone line at 877-672-4911.

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