ALBANY - State Police and federal authorities were continuing their investigation Monday into a limousine crash 35 miles outside Albany that killed 20 people Saturday afternoon, the worst transportation accident in the U.S in nine years.
At a late-afternoon news conference Monday, State Police Major Robert Patnaude verified that the driver of the limousine did not have the proper license to operate a passenger vehicle of that size.
He also reiterated earlier statements by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that company that owned and operated the vehicle, Prestige Limousine of Wilton, Saratoga County, had run afoul of safety regulations in the past.
"That company and that vehicle have been under scrutiny by DOT (the state Department of Transportation) in the past," Patnaude said.
In a statement, the company said it was doing its own investigation into the accident and extended "its deepest condolences to the family members and friends of those who tragically lost their lives on Saturday."
Cuomo told reporters earlier in the afternoon that the limousine failed a state inspection last month.
"It failed inspection. It’s not supposed to be on the road," Cuomo said.
Patnaude said at the news conference that investigators have determined that the company owner, Shahed Hussain, is in Pakistan. He declined to comment on Hussain’s past as a federal informant in high-profile terrorism cases in Albany and the Hudson Valley, telling reporters to ask the FBI.
Patnaude said it was not yet known if anyone involved is criminally culpable for the crash. “If there is, we’ll hold them accountable," he said.
Authorities offered relatively few new details about what Robert Sumwalt, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, called a "horrific crash" in the town of Schoharie.
Four sisters in the limousine were killed; so too were a newly married couple in their 30s; as were the driver and two pedestrians who were visiting at a popular country store, where the vehicle barreled through the parking lot.
“It’s tragic. Horrible. I can’t even begin to even explain," Valerie Abeling told The Washington Post, confirming that her 34-year-old niece, Erin McGowan, and her new husband, Shane McGowan, 30, were among the dead.
The couple were married in June.
Sumwalt, who also spoke at the news conference, said Monday was the first day of what likely would be a five-day on-scene investigation by the NTSB.
They are examining the the vehicle and its history, the road, the driver's qualification and actions, and a host of other factors.
"We’re here not to find out just what happened but why it happened," he said. "Our ultimate goal is to make sure it won’t happen again."
State Police First Superintendent Christopher Fiore told reporters Sunday the limousine, a 2001 Ford Excursion, failed to stop at the intersection at about 1:55 p.m. Saturday.
The limousine then slammed into a parked, unoccupied 2015 Toyota Highlander.
Witnesses said the limousine crashed into an embankment behind the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store.
The crash "sounded like an explosion," Linda Riley, of nearby Schenectady, described to The Associated Press.
The store manager, Jessica Kirby, told The New York Times the limousine was coming down a hill at "probably over 60 mph."
Police said the speed limit was 50 mph.
Cuomo said he had no information on the speed of the vehicle at the time of the crash.
Prestige said it has "voluntarily taken our fleet of vehicles off of the road during the investigation. We have already met with State and Federal investigators, and plan to do so again, as it is our goal to provide answers as quickly as possible."
The T-shaped intersection has long been a trouble spot, and Kirby told The Associated Press that repeatedly tractor trailers were unable to stop at the intersection and crashed near the store.
The store was organizing a vigil for the victims Wednesday, and a vigil was planned Monday night in Amsterdam, a blue-collar manufacturing town along the Mohawk River where most of the victims were from.
"It’s a very small city and there are generations of families who know each other," said Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, Schenectady County.
"Almost everybody I’ve talked to had a personal connection to someone in the accident."
About the deceased
Police didn't release the list of the deceased yet, but family members described their loved ones who died.
The 17 young adults in the limousine were headed to Cooperstown to celebrate the 30th birthday of Amy Steenburg, according to reports.
She was killed along with her husband Axel; Axel's brother Rich; Amy's three sisters and one of her brothers-in-law, Erin's uncle Anthony Vertucci told the Times Union in Albany.
Two of the couples were newlyweds, the paper said.
"They were wonderful girls," the sisters' aunt, Barbara Douglas, told The Associated Press.
"They'd do anything for you and they were very close to each other and they loved their family."
Douglas said three of the sisters were with their husbands.
"They did the responsible thing getting a limo so they wouldn't have to drive anywhere," she said, telling the paper that several of the couples had young children.
Police said they would reconstruct the accident scene and conduct autopsies to help their investigation. They declined to provide any details about what may have caused the crash.
It was the most deadly transportation accident in the country since February 2009, said the NTSB's Sumwalt.
"Twenty fatalities is just horrific," he said.
He added the investigation is focused to find "not only what happened, but why it happened so we can keep things like this from happening in the future."
Sumwalt said it was the most deadly U.S. transportation accident since the Colgan Air Flight 3407 plane crash on Feb. 12, 2009, near Buffalo that killed 50 people.
The accident also raises new questions about limousine safety.
But Cuomo said sometimes laws are simply broken.
"It didn’t have the federal certification and it failed the safety test that was done just last month," he said.
"So sometimes you say, ‘Well, maybe we should inspect more frequently. Maybe this, maybe this.’ Sometimes people just don’t follow the law, and that's maybe what happened here."
Three years ago, four women were killed in a limousine on Long Island as they toured wineries when the vehicle was hit by a truck.
A driver and the front-seat passenger are required to wear seat belts inside stretch limousines, but not the back-seat passengers, police said Sunday.
After the Long Island crash, Sen. Chuck Schumer said he urged the NTSB to better investigate limousine accidents in the country, saying Sunday, "because we desperately need more data to prevent them and minimize their toll."
Schumer added, "I commend the NTSB’s immediate aid on scene and am very confident that we will have concrete answers soon.”