Limo driver in New York state crash that killed 20 wasn't properly licensed

The driver of a supersized limousine involved in a crash that killed 20 people outside an upstate New York country store wasn't properly licensed, and the limo failed a state safety inspection just last month and shouldn't have been on the road, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday.

The state has ordered the owner, Prestige Limousine, to shut down while an investigation continues into the cause of Saturday's crash in Schoharie, about 270 kilometres north of New York City.

"In my opinion, the owner of this company had no business putting a failed vehicle on the road," Cuomo said while attending a Columbus Day Parade in New York City. "Prestige has a lot of questions to answer."

Friends of victims who died in Saturday's fatal limousine crash comfort each other after placing flowers at the intersection in Schoharie, N.Y., on Sunday. (Hans Pennink/Associated Press)

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) also said it was investigating the crash, which involved a stretch limo that Cuomo said had been rebuilt in a way that violated federal law.

A call to the company's office in Gansevoort rang unanswered Monday. Federal records show the company has undergone five inspections and had four vehicles pulled from service in the last two years.

Two pedestrians as well as the 18 limousine occupants, including four sisters, died. It had been en route to a brewery for a birthday party.

Amanda Halse sent her sister Karina a text less than an hour before the crash that said she and her boyfriend, Patrick Cushing, had gotten in the limo and the group was headed to Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, according to Karina. The crash happened before Amanda got a chance to reply.

"My heart is sunken. It's in a place where I've never felt this type of pain before," Karina said as she visited the crash site Monday.

Intersection known for accidents

Authorities didn't say whether the occupants were wearing seat-belts. They also didn't give the speed the limo was travelling at the time of the crash or speculate what caused it not to heed a stop sign at an intersection and slam into a parked SUV by the Apple Barrel Country Store and Cafe. Autopsies were being performed, including on the driver, to see if drugs or alcohol were a factor.

The intersection is a known danger spot that has long worried locals, even after an overhaul following a deadly 2008 accident there, according to Apple Barrel manager Jessica Kirby.

Since the reconstruction, three tractor-trailers have run through the same stop sign and into a field behind her business, she said. Officials worked with the state to outlaw heavy trucks, Kirby said, but there are still wrecks.

Emergency personnel respond to the scene of the deadly crash on Saturday. (WTEN/Associated Press)

"More accidents than I can count," she said in an email. "We have been asking for something to be done for years."

The 2001 Ford Excursion limousine was travelling southwest on Route 30 when it failed to stop at a T-junction with state Route 30A, state police said. It went across the road and hit an unoccupied SUV parked at the Apple Barrel and two pedestrians.

Relatives said the limousine was carrying four sisters and their friends to a 30th birthday celebration for the youngest sibling.

"They did the responsible thing getting a limo so they wouldn't have to drive anywhere," said their aunt, Barbara Douglas. "They were wonderful girls. They'd do anything for you and they were very close to each other and they loved their family."

Deadliest crash since 2005

A vigil will be held Monday night in Amsterdam, a Montgomery County where some victims lived. Grief counselling is being offered at the Amsterdam school district, where victim Abby Jackson taught.

The crash appeared to be the deadliest land-vehicle accident in the U.S. since a bus ferrying nursing home patients away from Hurricane Rita caught fire in Texas in 2005, killing 23.

Barbara Douglas of Danamora, N.Y., reacts while talking about her four family members who died in the crash. (Hans Pennink/Associated Press)

And it is the deadliest transportation accident overall since February 2009, when a plane crash near Buffalo killed 50 people, said Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. The board is investigating the crash, including whether the limo had any mechanical problems.

There were just 12 crashes involving large limos in the five years for which the agency has released statistics, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Twelve people were killed in limo crashes in that span. Over the same period, 171,508 people were killed in 157,451 crashes involving all types of vehicles.

There was no information immediately available Sunday on the limousine, its origin or its integrity. But safety issues on such vehicles have arisen before, notably after a wreck on Long Island in July 2015 in which four women were killed.

In that accident, the women were in a Lincoln Town Car that had been cut apart and rebuilt in a stretch configuration to accommodate more passengers. The limousine was trying to make a U-turn and was struck by a pickup.

A grand jury found that vehicles converted into stretch limousines often don't have certain safety measures, including side-impact airbags, reinforced rollover protection bars and accessible emergency exits. 

Limousines built in factories are already required to meet stringent safety regulations, but when cars are converted into limos, safety features are sometimes removed, leading to gaps in safety protocols, the grand jury wrote.

An ambulance is parked outside the Apple Barrel Country Store and Cafe on Saturday following the crash in upstate New York. (Tom Heffernan/Associated Press)

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