SCHOHARIE, N.Y. — 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 ordered the owner, Prestige Limousine, shut down while an investigation continues into what Saturday’s wreck in Schoharie.
“In my opinion, the owner of this company had no business putting a failed vehicle on the road,” the governor said while attending a Columbus Day Parade in New York City. “Prestige has a lot of questions to answer.”
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.
The crash killed two pedestrians and 18 occupants of the limousine, which was headed to a birthday party. Among the victims were four sisters.
Authorities didn’t say whether the limo occupants were wearing seat belts, give the speed of the limo or speculate what caused the limo to run 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 were 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, she said, but there are still wrecks.
“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 in Schoharie, about 170 miles (270 kilometres) north of New York City when it failed to stop at a T-junction with state Route 30A, state police said. The limo went across the road and hit an unoccupied SUV parked at the Apple Barrel, a local institution and popular stop for autumn leaf-peepers. The impact killed two pedestrians standing nearby.
Relatives said the limousine was carrying four sisters and their friends to a 30th birthday celebration for the youngest.
“They did the responsible thing getting a limo so they wouldn’t have to drive anywhere,” their aunt, Barbara Douglas, said Sunday. She did not want to name them publicly but added: “They were wonderful girls. They’d do anything for you and they were very close to each other and they loved their family.”
Valerie Abeling, the aunt of victim Erin Vertucci, said her 34-year-old niece and her niece’s new husband, 30-year-old Shane McGowan, were victims.
“She was a beautiful, sweet soul; he was, too, they were very sweet,” Abeling said. “They were two very young, beautiful people” who “had everything going for them.”
A vigil will be held Monday night in Amsterdam, 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 2005, killing 23.
And it is the deadliest transportation accident overall since February 2009, when a plane crash near Buffalo, New York, 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, 2012 through 2016. Over the same period, 171,508 people were killed in 157,451 crashes involving all types of vehicles.
There was no information 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.
They 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 safety measures including side-impact air bags, reinforced rollover protection bars and accessible emergency exits. That grand jury called on Cuomo to assemble a task force on limousine safety.
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.
This story has been corrected to show the name of the town where some victims lived is Amsterdam, not New Amsterdam.
Caserta reported from New York. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo, Jennifer Peltz, Michael R. Sisak, Deepti Hajela and Verena Dobnik in New York; Bob Salsberg in Boston; and John Kekis in Latham, New York.
Michael Hill And Sabrina Casterta, The Associated Press