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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

Governor: limo that crashed shouldn’t have been on the road

Investigators plan to examine the mangled vehicle’s data recorders and mechanical systems, as well as the road

Authorities had yet to say how fast the limo was going or determine what caused it to run a stop sign. AP
Authorities had yet to say how fast the limo was going or determine what caused it to run a stop sign. AP

The super-sized limousine that crashed and killed 20 people outside a country store failed a safety inspection last month and shouldn’t have been on the road, and the driver wasn’t properly licensed, New York’s governor said on Monday.

The state moved to shut the owner, Prestige Limousine, as state and federal authorities investigated the cause of Saturday’s wreck in Schoharie. The company said it was taking its cars off the road while conducting its own probe into the crash.

The crash about 272 kilometres north of New York City came three years after another deadly stretch-limo wreck in New York State spurred calls for Governor Andrew Cuomo to examine such vehicles’ safety. There is no evidence that the state took any steps to do so.

As victims’ relatives tried to come to grips with the tragedy that happened as a group of friends and family were on their way to a 30th birthday party, authorities had yet to say how fast the limo was going or determine what caused it to run a stop sign.

The 19-seater vehicle had at least some seat belts, but it was unclear whether anyone was wearing them, the National Transportation Safety Board's chairman Robert Sumwalt said.

Investigators plan to examine the mangled limo’s data recorders and mechanical systems, as well as the road, which has a history as a danger spot. They are also looking into the driver’s record and qualifications, and are conducting an autopsy to see if drugs or alcohol were factors.

But officials already saw some red flags, Mr Cuomo said: the driver didn’t have the necessary commercial license, and the vehicle failed a state inspection that examined such things as the chassis, suspension and brakes.

“In my opinion, the owner of this company had no business putting a failed vehicle on the road,” the governor said, while attending a Columbus Day Parade in New York City. “Prestige has a lot of questions to answer.”

He also said the limo – built by cutting apart a heavy-duty SUV and lengthening it – had been created without federal certification, though NTSB officials said they hadn’t yet determined whether the vehicle met federal standards.

Prestige Limousine issued a statement on Monday expressing condolences to victims’ families and saying it was conducting “a detailed internal investigation”, while also meeting with state and federal authorities, according to The New York Times.

The Gansevoort, New York-based company said it pulled its cars from the road voluntarily. But state police say they seized four Prestige cars, including the one that crashed.

Federal records show the company has undergone five inspections in the past two years and had four vehicles pulled from service.

Federal transportation records show Prestige is owned by Shahed Hussain, who worked as an informant for the FBI after the September 11 attacks, infiltrating Muslim groups by posing as a terrorist sympathiser in at least three investigations. In one case, he helped convict men accused of plotting to bomb New York synagogues.

His role at the FBI was assailed by civil-liberties groups, who accused him of helping the FBI entrap people.

Asked Monday about Mr Hussain, the FBI said it would not confirm or deny who is or is not an informant.

The limousine, built from a 2001 Ford Excursion, ran a stop sign at a T-junction at the bottom of a hill and slammed into an unoccupied SUV.

Investigators have yet to determine whether the driver, whose name has not been released, tried to brake. The crash left no visible skid marks, but that might be because of misty weather or anti-lock brakes, Mr Sumwalt said.

The wreck killed two pedestrians and all 18 people in the limousine, including four sisters who were heading with friends and relatives to a brewery for a birthday party for one of the sisters.