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Investigators Delve Into What Caused Deadly Limo Crash In New York


State and federal investigators are still trying to figure out what caused that deadly limousine crash in upstate New York that left 20 people dead on Saturday. As North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, officials say the company operating the limo had a history of failed inspections and violations.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Saturday afternoon, a stretch limousine plowed through a T-intersection in Schoharie, N.Y., slamming into a parked car. Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, tells reporters the crash was devastating.


ROBERT SUMWALT: A lot of damage - engine compartment pushed back into the front of the car, certainly indications of high-energy impact.

MANN: The driver and 17 passengers died along with two pedestrians. One family lost four sisters along with three of their husbands. They were celebrating a birthday party. Sumwalt says his agency's job now is finding out why this happened and whether it reflects limousine industry problems.


SUMWALT: This is the most deadly transportation accident or crash that we've seen on U.S. soil since February of 2009. So it's definitely something that we're very interested in.

MANN: Investigators have started to release some information about the crash. Sumwalt says there weren't skid marks on the road at the accident scene, so it's possible the driver never hit the brakes. Major Robert Patnaude with New York State Police says it also appears he shouldn't have been behind the wheel at all.


ROBERT PATNAUDE: The driver of the limo did not have the appropriate license to operate that vehicle.

MANN: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters this week, the limo failed a state inspection last month. But state and federal investigators say they don't yet know whether driver error or mechanical failures contributed to the crash. Patnaude says investigators are looking at the scene and the wreckage.


PATNAUDE: We're also in possession of the airbag control module, what would be considered the vehicle's black box. That is being analyzed for post-crash data.

MANN: Patnaude describes this as a criminal investigation and says a total of four vehicles owned by the company Prestige Limos have been seized under a search warrant. He also confirms that the owner, Shahed Hussain, is currently traveling outside the U.S. in his native Pakistan. The NTSB's Robert Sumwalt says federal investigators plan to look hard at how the company operated.


SUMWALT: Records of prior crashes, their management of drivers, their fatigue management program, vehicle maintenance, driver fitness for duty.

MANN: It's been reported that one victim sent a text message Saturday before the accident, complaining about the condition of the vehicle. Major Patnaude with New York State Police says they're hoping to find other communication from passengers that may offer clues.


PATNAUDE: We're asking that anyone who may have been in contact with the victims before the crash give us a call.

MANN: Concerns have also been raised about the safety of the intersection where this crash occurred, an intersection that investigators say was recently modified. The NTSB says their team will look at the new design of the road, its signage and visibility.

Brian Mann, NPR News, Westport, N.Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.