The company that provided the limousine that crashed in upstate New York on Saturday, killing 20 people, had repeatedly failed motor vehicle inspections and the driver did not have a proper license, according to state officials and federal transportation records. One victim expressed concerns about the limousine in a text sent shortly before the crash, relatives and friends said.
One friend said she got a text from one of the victims, Erin McGowan, telling her that a party bus that was supposed to pick up the group of friends to take them to a brewery had broken down on the way there.
Instead, the group obtained a stretch limousine, which was in shoddy condition, McGowan told her friend, using a profanity to describe the vehicle.
The friend, Melissa Healey, 33, who had been the maid of honor at McGowan’s wedding this summer, shared the texts with The New York Times.
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“The motor is making everyone deaf,” wrote McGowan, before Healey asked from where they rented the car.
McGowan responded that she wasn’t sure, but then added, “When we get to brewery we will all b deaf.”
They never made it.
The company that rented the vehicle was Prestige Limousine, a small company doing business out of Gansevoort, New York, a town north of Albany, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who briefed the news media about the investigation Monday. A review of federal transportation records shows that the company, which had three vehicles, had failed inspections, though the records did not provide details about the failures.
Cuomo said that the driver, who has not been identified by authorities, “did not have the appropriate driver’s license to be operating that vehicle.”
The governor also said that the limousine involved in the accident had been inspected last month and failed that inspection and “was not supposed to be on the road.”
But he cautioned that the cause of the accident had not been determined, noting they were looking at both mechanical malfunction and driver error. The state has already issued a cease-and-desist order to prevent Prestige Limousine from operating.
A phone number listed for the company on the federal records was disconnected Monday.
The owner of the limousine company, Shahed Hussain, has the same name and address as that of a former informant for the FBI who has testified in two prominent terrorism cases, according to public records. A law enforcement official suggested that his son may operate the limousine company.
Hussain, the informant, posed as a wealthy Muslim radical, was the central prosecution witness in a 2004 federal sting focusing on a pizzeria owner and an imam at an Albany mosque. In 2010, Hussain, who posed as a terrorist, played a key role in trying the government’s case in a plot to blow up two synagogues in New York City.
He became an FBI informant after being charged in 2002 with a scheme involving taking money to illegally help people in the Albany area get driver’s licenses.
Federal officials said the crash in Schoharie, New York, a small town about 40 miles west of Albany, was the worst transportation-related accident in nine years, since a 2009 plane crash outside Buffalo.
“It reminds us all that every day is precious,” Cuomo said.
On Monday, investigators continued to search for clues as to what caused the 2001 Ford Excursion limousine to speed down a rural highway, through a stop sign and into an unoccupied car, killing 17 friends in the vehicle who were on their way to celebrate a birthday party. Two pedestrians were also killed in the crash.
The investigation will also include autopsies of the victims, a tight-knit group that included four sisters, two brothers and several young couples. Those victims had yet to be identified by authorities but heartbroken friends and relatives were already posting testimonials.
“I lost my two best friends in this,” wrote Justin Cushing, whose brother Patrick, friend Adam Jackson and his cousin, McGowan, all died in the limousine. “I’m shaking.”
The intersection where the accident occurred was known among residents as being notoriously dangerous: a tricky T-shape, where east-west traffic often sped by in excess of the posted 50 mph speed limit.
“This has long been a source of discord in Schoharie,” said Rosemary Christoff Dolan, who had come to the accident site Sunday.
In fact, officials from the state Department of Transportation had described the intersection as a “high-accident’’ location and had planned to turn it into a roundabout to improve safety.
Police said that the limousine had been traveling downhill toward the intersection when it failed to stop, crossing that busy highway, and then hitting the second vehicle in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel, a local shop, and the two pedestrians nearby. The limousine then crashed into a shallow ravine.
Questions about the safety and regulation of such oversized vehicles were also being raised. According to New York State Police, limousine drivers are required to wear a seat belt but passengers who are often riding in open spaces in the back are not. A lack of any restraint can cause serious injuries in a crash — indeed, only one person inside the limousine Saturday apparently survived the initial impact before being pronounced dead at a hospital in Albany.
On Monday, Cuomo seemed to question whether more legislative oversight of the industry was the answer.
“I don’t know that this a situation where you can find a new law or a new regulation,” he said.
Such oversized vehicles have been involved in fatal accidents in New York before: In 2015, a limousine carrying a bridal party of eight women crashed into a pickup truck in Cutchogue, New York, killing four people.
As the investigation into the crash continues, families of the victims continue to grapple with the fallout from the crash.
“They were all friends,” said Valerie Abeling, McGowan’s aunt. “Most of them were lifelong friends. Relatives, cousins, family.”