‘Horrific’ is the word police, first-responders, witnesses––and even reporters––are using to describe the accident that claimed 20 lives in Schoharie Saturday afternoon.
On top of the tragedy, there may be cause for criminal and civil action, Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a press release Monday afternoon.
“It’s the deadliest vehicle crash in the country since 2009,” Robert Sumwalt of the National Transportation Safety Board said at a press conference in Latham Sunday.
The accident happened in an instant:
According to State Police, a limousine with 18 people aboard came down the steep Route 30 hill to the intersection with Route 30A shortly before 2pm.
The limo flew past a stop sign––one report had the speed at 60 mph––and smashed into a 2015 Toyota Highlander parked near the Apple Barrel Country Store.
The unoccupied Highlander struck and killed two pedestrians, and the limo slammed into a small gully.
One person in the limo survived the crash but later died at Albany Medical Center, according to Christopher Fiore, first deputy superintendent of the State Police.
The other 17 died at the scene, he said.
“I heard the crash and heard the screams,” said Jessica Loden Kirby, who was working at her Apple Barrel Store.
“I called 911 immediately and told them there was a multi-vehicle accident and to get everyone down here.”
State Police and the NTSB will determine the cause of the crash. The probe has already determined that the limo, a 2001 Ford Excursion, failed ‘physical inspection’ last month “and was not supposed to be on the road,” Governor Cuomo said in Monday afternoon’s update.
Also, the Governor said, the driver did not have the proper license to operate a limousine.
The state issued a cease and desist order to Prestige Limousine, the owner, to stop operating until the investigation is finished.
“There’s an ongoing investigation,” Governor Cuomo said. “Is there a possibility of liability? Civil and criminal? Certainly.”
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Fire department and rescue squad volunteers from Schoharie, Scho-Wright, Middleburgh, Esperance, Central Bridge, Duanesburgh, and Richmondville were on the scene quickly Saturday, as were State Police and the Schoharie County Sheriff’s Office.
“When you first come on a scene and you know you have a task to do, you put up a shield,” said Sheriff Ron Stevens, who described the tragedy as the worst he’s seen in his years in law enforcement.
“When we all sit down afterwards, we think about the fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who perished.”
State Police haven’t released the names of all the victims, but limo passengers, many from the Amsterdam area, were celebrating a birthday.
All who died were adults, State Police said. The deceased included two pairs of newlyweds.
Police haven’t determined the causes of death yet, whether the passengers were thrown from the limo, died of blunt-force trauma or other causes. Superintendent Fiore said it’s too early to tell whether alcohol was a factor.
The investigation will include toxicology tests and autopsies.
In a limousine, only the driver and front-seat passenger are required to wear seat belts. The rest are not, though Superintendent Fiore would not say whether the passengers wore seat belts.
Levity that turned into a tragedy claimed those lives, said Congressman John Faso, who toured the scene Monday.
“We should focus on the lives lost and that every life is precious,” he said. “Now’s the time for us to be thinking about the families left behind.”
State Police set up a phone line at 1-877-672-4911 to assist victims’ family members.
Another concern is that of first-responders, several at the accident scene said Monday. (See related story.)
The NTSB’s investigation will discover “not only what happened but why it happened, so that we can keep things like this from happening in the future,” Mr. Sumwalt said at Sunday’s press conference.
That may affect the state of the Route 30-30A intersection, which Ms. Kirby said is a frequent site of accidents.
Sheriff Stevens said the intersection was remodeled from a Y to a T about five years ago.
It may change again, depending on what the NTSB finds.
“Whether it’s a change in the intersection or whatever the investigation points to, I’m ready to sponsor any legislation necessary,” Senator Jim Seward said at the scene Monday.
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