ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The owner of the stretched limousine that crashed and killed 20 people in upstate New York repeatedly changed the listed number of seats in the vehicle and took other steps to avoid safety regulations, according to documents released Wednesday by federal investigators.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s docket on the Oct. 6, 2018, crash in rural Schoharie contains dozens of documents, including an inspection report highlighting brake problems that hadn’t been fixed since a previous inspection. But it doesn’t cite a probable cause for the crash, which state police attributed to catastrophic brake failure.
“The next step is that NTSB investigators write an analysis of the factual data and prepare a draft report that will include findings, the analysis of the facts, a finding of probable cause and safety recommendations,” NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said via email. The board will hold a public meeting on the report on Sept. 29, he said.
Nauman Hussain, the 30-year-old operator of Prestige Limousine in Saratoga Springs, faces 20 charges each of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide for the crash that killed 17 passengers, the limo driver and two bystanders at the Apple Barrel Country Store. He has pleaded not guilty and was scheduled to stand trial in May, but the trial was delayed because of the pandemic. His lawyers have been meeting with prosecutors to discuss a possible plea deal.
The ill-fated limousine was rented to take a group of young friends and siblings to a 30th birthday celebration at Brewery Ommegang near Cooperstown. The vehicle’s brakes failed on a downhill stretch of state Route 30 in Schoharie, 30 miles west of Albany. It blew through a stop sign at a T-intersection and crashed shortly before 2 p.m.
Documents released by NTSB reveal chilling details about the moments before the crash. A passenger texted, “the limo sounds like it is going to explode” and “it’s a junker.” Another driver described hearing a noise like a “jet plane” as the limo swerved around her car and sped through the intersection.
The driver had been cited for lacking a commercial passenger vehicle endorsement required by federal regulations. Toxicology tests after the crash showed he had marijuana and a prescription antidepressant in his system.
Prestige Limousine is owned by Hussain’s father, Shahed Hussain, a former paid FBI informant known for his work in a series of controversial domestic terrorism investigations who is now back in his native Pakistan. He has not been charged in connection with the crash.
Prestige, the third owner of the 2001 Ford Excursion limo, took pains to avoid more stringent inspection rules intended to ensure a modified vehicle has the braking capacity and other requirements for carrying a heavier load than in its original manufactured state. When it registered the limo, it didn’t disclose to the Department of Motor Vehicles that it had been stretched, as required, and falsified the seating capacity from 18 down to 11, according to the NTSB documents. It further reduced the seating capacity to 8 when it registered the vehicle in 2017, and listed the capacity as 10 in 2018.
Any vehicle with 15 or more seats is defined as a bus under state regulations and is subject to semi-annual inspections.
Documents also show a pattern of failed inspections. The limo was ordered out of service by the New York State Department of Transportation after an inspection on Sept. 4, 2018, that was part of an investigation of Prestige for operating as a limousine service without proper certification. Twice the DOT issued violation notices, and the company paid $500 penalties but kept operating.
In the Sept. 4, 2018, check, the inspector discovered that violations found in previous inspections had not been fixed, so he ordered the vehicle out of service. Among the violations cited was a brake line to the left front axle dangling from the limo that could come in contact with the left front tire.
On Sept. 1, 2018, a third violation notice was issued. Prestige failed to show for a hearing the day before the crash, and an administrative law judge issued a $2,000 penalty, which has not been paid, according to the NTSB. In all, the DOT inspected Prestige’s vehicles five times, the NTSB reported.
Hussain’s lawyer, Lee Kindlon, said he has taken a preliminary look through the recently released NTSB reports but not enough to comment at this time.
AP writers David Koenig in Dallas and Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed to this story.