Limo company claims vehicle in deadly crash was cleared to be on the road. State officials say that is false
The attorney for the limousine company whose vehicle crashed in upstate New York on Saturday disputed statements from officials that the stretched Ford Excursion should have never been on the road.
Prestige Limousine Chauffeur Service attorney Lee Kindlon said the state Department of Transportation conducted a periodic inspection last week and discovered “minor safety infractions” including inoperative or defective windshield wipers and a broken latch on a window.
Both issues were fixed and, “as recently as last week they were told by the Department of Transportation that they could, that this vehicle was roadworthy and they could drive it,” Kindlon said. “I am disputing that any recent failures of minor safety defects contributed to this crash,” he said.
State officials charged back, saying the vehicle was not allowed to be in service.
“The assertion that the limousine was cleared to be on the road following the September inspection is categorically false,” said Joseph Morrissey, spokesman for the New York State Department of Transportation, in a statement. “The vehicle was subject to inspections and the owner was warned not to operate the vehicle; the vehicle was placed out of service.”
For reasons still unknown, the limo plowed through a stop sign in Schoharie and crashed into a parked SUV. The crash left 20 people dead, including the 17 passengers who rented the limo for a birthday party, two pedestrians and the driver.
Federal, state and local investigators have flooded Schoharie to try to understand what caused the deadliest US transportation accident in almost a decade. The wreck has placed Prestige Limousine Chauffeur Service and its owner, Shahed Hussain, under scrutiny.
Before he owned the company, the Pakistani national was an informant for the FBI, where he conducted an undercover investigation for several months in 2008 and 2009, court records show. A state official and a former attorney with knowledge of his cooperation with the FBI confirmed to CNN that Hussain was the informant.
Seventeen of the victims were friends celebrating a birthday. The close-knit group included newlyweds, artists, athletes and young parents. Four were sisters.
“Everyone’s lives were cut way too short, and I don’t know what to say about it. It just hurts,” Karina Halse told CNN on Monday while visiting the scene of the accident in Schoharie where her older sister, Amanda Halse, was killed.
Two pedestrians were also killed when the converted SUV hit a vehicle in a restaurant parking lot.
Here’s what we know about the victims:
Brian Hough was killed in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store & Cafe when the limo slammed into an unoccupied SUV.
Hough was an associate professor of geology at State University of New York at Oswego, also known as SUNY Oswego, where he taught courses in stratigraphy, oceanography, historical geology, and paleontology, according to the university.
He had been there since 2016.
“In a short time, Brian became a major part of our campus family,” said SUNY Oswego President Deborah F. Stanley in a statement. “He was a dedicated faculty member who inspired his students to learn and understand at a deep level, and whose contributions were often sought by his colleagues. He will be missed and remembered fondly by all, always.”
James Schnurr, 70, was also killed in the parking lot.
Amanda Halse and Patrick Cushing
Amanda Halse was an artist and the peacekeeper in the family, her sister said.
“My big sister was so great and she was so wonderful. She was such a spontaneous person, and she did whatever she could to have fun with anyone and everyone around her,” Karina Halse said.
They had gotten together last weekend for a day trip to Vermont with their mom.
“It was just a nice get-together for all three of us girls to have a nice day out,” she said. “It was a nice sendoff, I guess, because that would be the last time I would ever see her in person.”
Patrick Cushing, Amanda Halse’s boyfriend, also died.
Cushing worked in the New York Senate’s technology service unit and played for the US Dodgeball team, which described him on Facebook as an amazing friend and “one of the most agile and dominant players in the world.”
Justin Cushing said his brother was passionate and good-hearted.
“He had such empathy and kindness. He loved, hugged, and cried with his friends and family like their problems were his, and celebrated with those same family and friends like our successes were his personal goals,” he said.
Shane and Erin McGowan
Shane and Erin McGowan married in June, and her aunt said they were “two of the sweetest souls you could ever meet.”
“They were both just soul mates because they just radiated love and beauty and how a marriage should be,” Valerie Abeling told CNN. “They were just loving and funny and kind and everybody loved them and they were so good together. Their lives were just cut short too soon.”
Amy, Axel and Rich Steenburg
Newlyweds Amy and Axel Steenburg also married in June. In her last public Facebook post, Amy gushed about her husband.
“I just wanted to say Axel Steenburg I love you more than words can say! You are such an amazing man and entertain all my crazy ideas. Even when I move a couch just to move it back to the original place. Thank you for being so kind and loving xo #justbecause #husband,” she wrote.
Axel’s brother, Rich Steenburg, also was in the limo, their aunt Jessica Andrews confirmed to CNN affiliate WHAM.
Amy Steenburg’s three sisters — Abby Jackson, Mary Dyson and Allison King — were killed in the crash, said state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara.
“The Steenburg and King families suffered tremendous loss yesterday that is nothing short of tragic,” Rich Steenburg’s family said in a statement to CNN affiliate WHAM in Rochester
“Those left behind by the perished include children, spouses and parents — among others. We thank all of the first responders who have assisted, those who have reached out with kindness and love and those who continue to support us as we mourn those we lost. We also ask for respect and compassion as we continue the grieving process and cope through such misfortune.”
Abby and Adam Jackson
Abby and Adam Jackson had two young children. “Adam and Abby were amazing parents to these girls and taken much too soon,” Sarah Maltzman, a family friend, wrote on a GoFundMepage set up to pay for college and expenses for the daughters.
Abby Jackson was a middle school special education teacher in Amsterdam, New York, according to Santabarbara, the state assemblyman.
Rob and Mary Dyson
Mary Dyson was a coach at a Crossfit gym in Watertown, New York. The gym had a special workout Monday in her honor.
“She will be cheering us on and laughing at some of us!!” organizers wrote in a post on the gym’s Facebook page.
Her husband, Rob, also was killed.
Amanda Rivenburg worked with people with disabilities, and had been with the Albany-based Living Resources since 2011.
In a letter to employees, Living Resources CEO Fredrick W. Erlich said Rivenburg was “deeply loved by all those that knew her.”
“She will be remembered fondly through her loving spirit, wonderful smile, thoughtful nature, and her genuine commitment to her colleagues and individuals that we serve,” Erlich said. “Over the last couple of days, many have shared wonderful memories of Amanda and we encourage you to continue to do so. It is through these heartfelt memories that her spirit will live on in each of us.”
Rivenburg started as a direct services professional and had worked her way up to become the assistant director of the day communities opportunities program.
Savannah Bursese was a bodybuilder devoted to her pit bulls.
Bursese graduated in 2015 from Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, with degrees in political science and business administration, the school said on its Facebook page.
She was a sister of Phi Sigma Phi and on the school’s volleyball team.
According to her obituary, Bursese was saving up to move to Texas to pursue a law degree.
Even though she was only 24 years old, her life “was anything but tragic,” her obituary said. “A passionate and determined young woman, Savannah knew exactly what she wanted out of life.”
The obituary stressed her love for animals and said her family is comforted that she will be reunited with “the first love of her life” — a chihuahua named Gino.
“Rather than grieving, go home to your fur baby, and show them some love — it’s what Savannah would have wanted,” they wrote.
Matthew W. Coons, Rachael K. Cavosie and Michael C. Ukaj were also killed.
What we know about the driver
Kindlon disputed claims that the limo’s driver did not have the proper license to operate the vehicle. The company checked with the Department of Motor Vehicles “a number of different times” and were told that he did, Kindlon said.
Authorities identified the driver as Scott Lisinicchia, 53, of Lake George, New York. He worked for the company for years, Kindlon said, and was a wage employee who worked when the company needed a driver.
Kindlon called him a “very reliable employee and a great driver.”
He added the company is looking into the driver’s history as part of an internal investigation. He also said the company is collecting maintenance records, driver logs and ownership records and intends to turn them over to authorities.
Condition of vehicle disputed
The birthday party guests were riding in a 2001 Ford Excursion that was converted into a limousine. As more details emerge about the apparent broken rules, investigators also are looking into whether the unusual structure of the limo may have contributed to this mass tragedy.
“I would just ask for the investigation to take place so we can figure out exactly why the vehicle crashed,” Kindlon said.
Company’s vehicles off the road
US Department of Transportation records show the company’s vehicles were inspected five times in the last two years, and the company has had four vehicles taken out of service.
State police seized three of the company’s vehicles in addition to the modified limo involved in the crash, State Police Maj. Robert Patnaude said.
Kindlon said the vehicles taken off the road were sold or transferred to different owners. Those that had safety problems or mechanical problems were fixed and put back in service.
According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the vehicle had the following three violations in a September 4 inspection that earned it an “out of service” designation, meaning it could not be on the road because it poses an imminent hazard:
• Operating a vehicle with seating in excess of the manufacturer’s designed seating capacity
• No or defective bus emergency exits
• Inspection, repair and maintenance of parts and accessories
The vehicle had an additional seven violations that did not earn an “out of service” designation, including failure to correct defects previously noted.
The company’s owner was an FBI informant
The company’s owner is currently in Pakistan, where he travels frequently. “He is ready and able to come back whenever they need him,” Kindlon said.
“His heart is broken and his family’s heart is broken,” Kindlon said. “Anything that he can do to make this right, he’ll do. And he’s so very sorry for everything that’s happened.”
He skirted deportation for his conviction by agreeing to cooperate with an investigation into another person. In 2007, Hussain became a paid informant for the FBI and started working in the lower Hudson Valley, records show. Hussain’s job was to locate Muslims who may be plotting against the United States, records show.
Hussain attended services at a mosque in Newburgh at the direction of the FBI in 2008, records show. The FBI equipped him with a home that had concealed audio and video recording equipment as well as audio equipment for his car. Hussain presented himself as a wealthy Pakistani immigrant who knew about Islamic teachings.
He testified in at least one federal case, records show.