The modified limo that crashed and killed 20 people wasn’t even supposed to be on the road, New York’s governor said Monday.
On top of that, the driver “did not have the appropriate driver’s license to be operating that vehicle,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.
The startling revelations bring more anguish to those grieving the deaths of 20 people in the quaint town of Schoharie.
Before the disaster, the limo was full of exuberance — 17 birthday party guests who had many reasons to celebrate. There were newlyweds and young couples and four sisters, all on their way to revel at an upstate New York brewery.
But for reasons still unknown, the limo plowed through a stop sign, crashed into a parked SUV and caused the deadliest US transportation accident in almost a decade.
All 17 passengers were killed. So was the limo’s driver. So were two pedestrians.
As more details emerge about the apparent broken rules, investigators also are wondering whether the unusual structure of the limo may have contributed to this mass tragedy.
The limo recently failed inspection
The birthday party guests were riding in a 2001 Ford Expedition that had been converted into a limousine.
“That vehicle was inspected by the New York State Department of Transportation last month and failed inspection and was not supposed to be on the road,” Cuomo said.
“The driver needed what what’s called a CDL, a commercial driver license with a passenger endorsement. The driver did not have that proper license,” Cuomo added.
The limo company has been identified as Prestige Limousine Chauffeur Service in Gansevoort, New York, according to an official with knowledge of the investigation.
US Department of Transportation records show Prestige Limousine Chauffeur Service has two drivers and three vehicles. Its vehicles were inspected five times in the last two years, and the company has had four vehicles taken out of service.
CNN’s attempts to reach the company have not been successful.
Cuomo said officials are working on “a cease-and-desist order to stop Prestige Limousine from operating until the investigation is concluded.”
One family loses four sisters
Those in the limo weren’t just friends — many were family.
Four sisters — Mary Dyson, Abby Jackson, Allison King and Amy Steenburg — all perished in the crash, state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara said. Steenburg’s husband Axel Steenburg also was killed.
Many of the victims were from the upstate city of Amsterdam, about 20 miles north of the crash site. Jackson was a special education teacher in Amsterdam, said Santabarbara, who represents the part of New York where the crash happened.
Valerie Abeling said her niece, Erin Vertucci and Erin’s husband Shane McGowan, died together. They got married just four months ago.
“It’s a horrible tragedy, and there’s no words to describe how we feel,” Abeling said.
“These were young couples, just got married and had their whole lives ahead of them.”
Karina Halse said she’s struggling with the loss of her sister, Amanda Halse, who was killed along with her boyfriend.
“My heart is completely sunken,” Karina said. “I can’t even imagine how it happened, or why it happened.”
And Barbara Douglas isn’t just grieving the deaths of her two nieces. She’s mourning the loss of two mothers.
“They were fun-loving. They were wonderful girls,” Douglas said. “They’d do anything for you, and they were very close to each other.”
Douglas’ face grew increasingly somber as she thought of her nieces’ three children.
“They now have no parents,” Douglas said.
Questions abound over the structure of the limo
Federal, state and local investigators flooded the tiny town of Schoharie to try to understand what happened.
“We don’t know the cause of the accident, if it was a vehicle malfunction, if it was a driver malfunction (or) a driver error,” Cuomo said.
The crash happened outside an Apple Barrel Country Store & Cafe. Resident Bridey Finnagen said it was loud enough to hear from down the road.
“I heard a loud bang. I came out my front door to see what was going on,” Finnagen told CNN affiliate WTEN.
“I saw a lot of people here at the Apple Barrel out in the parking lot. Then I heard screaming. Then I saw this large van, a very unusual looking vehicle, out here in Schoharie in the bushes and really wrecked, hit a tree.”
These kinds of altered vehicles have worried officials, said Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board. That’s because after-market modifications often affect a vehicle’s structural integrity and safety.
It’s not clear whether the driver was speeding, whether the brakes were working, or whether the passengers were wearing seat belts, said Chris Fiore of the New York State Police. In limousines, rear passengers are not required to wear seat belts, Goelz said.
The crash was so catastrophic, it stunned even veteran safety experts.
“Twenty fatalities, it’s just horrific,” NTSB board chairman Robert Sumwalt said.
“I’ve been on the board for 12 years and this is one of the biggest losses of life … This is the most deadly transportation accident in this country since February of 2009.”