SCHOHARIE, NY (AP) — The supersized limousine involved in a crash that killed 20 people outside a country store failed a recent safety inspection and shouldn’t have been on the road, and the driver wasn’t properly licensed, New York’s governor said Monday.
The state ordered the owner, Prestige Limousine, shut down while an investigation continues into what caused Saturday’s wreck in Schoharie.
“In my opinion, the owner of this company had no business putting a failed vehicle on the road,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said while attending a Columbus Day Parade in New York City. “Prestige has a lot of questions to answer.”
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration 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 Prestige Limousine’s office in Gansevoort went unanswered. 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 carrying four sisters, relatives and friends to a brewery for a birthday party, according to relatives.
Amanda Halse sent her own sister a text around 1 p.m. saying she and her boyfriend, Patrick Cushing, had gotten in the limo and the group was headed to Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, according to her sister, Karina. The crash happened before she 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.
Amanda, 26, a waitress at a retirement community, was “a very strong and independent person” who didn’t like people to do things for her, according to her sister.
“She would be the one to initiate things,” she said.
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. Investigators are also looking into whether the limo had any mechanical problems.
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.
“We have been asking for something to be done for years,” she said in an email.
The 2001 Ford Excursion limousine was traveling southwest on Route 30 in Schoharie, about 170 miles (270 kilometers) 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 bound for a 30th birthday celebration for the youngest of the four sisters.
“They did the responsible thing getting a limo so they wouldn’t have to drive anywhere,” their aunt, Barbara Douglas, said Sunday. “They were wonderful girls. They’d do anything for you and they were very close to each other and they loved their family.”
A vigil was scheduled for Monday night in Amsterdam, where some victims lived. Grief counseling was 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 nation’s 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.
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.