ALBANY, N.Y. – A disastrous stretch limousine crash that killed 20 people was probably caused by an owner who showed an "egregious disregard for safety" by putting the vehicle on the road despite failing a state inspection that cited issues with the brake system, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The federal board met virtually Tuesday to finalize its report on the probable cause of the crash Oct. 6, 2018, in Schoharie, New York, which killed the driver, all 17 passengers and two bystanders. The 2001 Ford Excursion limousine blew through a stop sign and struck a parked SUV in the Apple Barrel Country Store's parking lot.
The limousine, owned by Prestige Limousine of Saratoga County, appeared to suffer brake failure and reached speeds of 100 mph as it descended a steep hill toward the "T" intersection of Routes 30 and 30A where the crash occurred, the NTSB found.
NTSB members and investigators were highly critical of Prestige, noting the vehicle was ordered out of service by the New York Department of Transportation before the crash because of issues with the brake system.
Drone video: Deadly limo crash site in upstate New York
The NTSB cited a pair of inspection shops – a Mavis Discount Tire outpost and Wilton Tire Center – that inspected the stretch limousine without proper authority to do so, as well as the state of New York for failing to seize the vehicle's license plates before the crash.
The board accused Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery and the New York State Police of impeding federal investigators' access to the limousine and other evidence in the months after the crash.
"Prestige Limousine, Mavis Discount Tire and the state of New York failed to adequately protect 20 innocent lives," NTSB member Michael Graham said during the meeting.
The board voted to approve the final report around 2 p.m. Tuesday. It is likely to be released publicly later in the day.
Crash killed family, friends celebrating birthday
The fatal crash happened the afternoon of Oct. 6, 2018. A group of friends and family members – including four sisters and three of their husbands – secured the stretch limo from Prestige after a reservation with a different company fell through.
The group boarded the limousine in the city of Amsterdam, about 35 miles west of Albany, and headed toward Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown to celebrate the 30th birthday of Amy Steenburg, one of the sisters.
Prestige's operator, Nauman Hussain, 30, faces 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide and second-degree manslaughter, though his attorneys engaged in plea bargain negotiations with the Schoharie County district attorney.
The NTSB's report faulted the state DOT's "ineffective oversight" of the limousine industry and failure to adequately track vehicle repairs.
It cited the Department of Motor Vehicles' inability to properly oversee the inspection system, which allowed the limousine to be inspected less frequently and less rigorously because it was improperly registered.
The NTSB reported 22 findings, including:
The limo had a brake system that was corroded and inadequately maintained. It had never been upgraded when the vehicle was altered, or "stretched," from a basic SUV to a limousine.
The limo would have been able to safely stop before reaching the intersection where the crash occurred if the brakes functioned properly.
The limo driver, Scott Lisinicchia, failed to disclose medical ailments and prescriptions while undergoing a medical exam for a commercial driver's license. He also failed to disclose his "habitual" marijuana use, which would have prevented him from getting the license.
NTSB directs ire toward Prestige, state
Prosecutors accused Hussain of knowingly putting the limo back on the road after the DOT placed an out-of-service sticker on the vehicle meant to keep it off the road, in part because the brake system was not up to par.
Prestige did not obtain a state operating authority certificate before putting the limo on the road as required.
After the crash, the state DOT suggested it did not have authority under law to seize the limo's license plates despite knowing it didn't have operating authority and failed the inspection.
At the meeting Tuesday, NTSB investigators said the DOT did have that authority, even before lawmakers clarified the law in 2019.
The DMV did not immediately catch that Prestige failed to properly register the limousine as a bus, which would have triggered the more-frequent, more-expansive inspection process by the DOT sooner.
Prestige got the limo inspected at Mavis Discount Tire and Wilton Tire Center, neither of which have authority to inspect stretch limos.
"They (the state agencies) were supposed to be enforcing this, and instead they sat on bureaucratic red tape," NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said.
NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt pointed out the DOT had raised issues with Prestige more than a dozen times over the years and placed it out of service.
If the DOT didn't believe it had authority to revoke the limo's plates, Sumwalt said, he had a hard time blaming the agency.
"I think we're taking an unfair swipe at the New York DOT," he said before agreeing to the findings.
DMV spokeswoman Lisa Koumjian and DOT spokesman Joe Morrissey issued a joint statement Tuesday saying the agencies did as much as they could by law. After the crash, the DOT's legal authority to revoke plates was expanded.
"We exercised the full authority granted to us under the law and ordered that vehicle off the road multiple times, but as NTSB’s own reports on this crash reaffirm, Prestige repeatedly violated New York State law and was never authorized at any time to operate for-hire commercial passenger vehicle service in the State," according to the joint statement.
Criminal investigation delayed NTSB
The NTSB is a federal board tasked with investigating major traffic and transportation incidents that result in fatalities. The board has congressional authority to recommend legal changes that could help prevent disasters.
The board repeatedly clashed with the Schoharie district attorney and New York State Police, who did not immediately provide access to the limousine in the months after the crash as they continued with their criminal investigation of Hussain.
Sumwalt opened the virtual meeting Tuesday with a lengthy criticism of the prosecutor and state police, suggesting the access clash delayed the federal report for about a year.
The NTSB didn't have full access to the limo's brake system, and investigators couldn't say exactly why the brake system appeared to have failed.
“Unfortunately, the parallel criminal investigation conducted by the Schoharie County District Attorney’s Office and the NYSP significantly impeded and curtailed our typical investigatory efforts," Sumwalt said.
Mallery, the Schoharie County district attorney, said she could not respond to the NTSB's criticism until Hussain's criminal case concludes but noted district attorneys and the federal board "have different obligations and responsibilities which we both must adhere to."
Beau Duffy, a spokesman for the state police, said the NTSB was allowed to view police inspections of the limo before gaining access for its own investigation.
"Since the day of the crash, the NTSB has been fully aware that the criminal case is the priority, and the vehicle had to be fully processed by the State Police and the defense before they could conduct a hands-on examination," Duffy said in a statement.
Victims' families pushed for change
The NTSB's findings regarding the limousine's brakes are in line with a state-hired expert, who found the vehicle suffered "catastrophic brake failure" as it traveled down the steep hill.
Since the crash, the victims' families have joined to push for changes to the limousine industry and New York traffic law.
This year, they convinced the state Legislature to enact a series of measures, including a law requiring all limousines to have a seat belt for each rear passenger.
New limos must meet the seat belt requirement on and after Jan. 1, 2021, and older limos will have to be retrofitted by 2023, according to the law.
The families of the victims filed civil lawsuits against Hussain; his father, Shahed, who owns the company; the Mavis Discount Tire shop that inspected the limousine and performed brake work; and the state of New York.
Follow Jon Campbell on Twitter: @JonCampbellGAN.
This article originally appeared on New York State Team: NTSB: Brake failure, 'egregious disregard' caused deadly NY limo crash