20 Killed in Limo Crash in New York; Deadliest U.S. Accident in 9 Years
Schoharie, New York – The plans were made, the friends had gathered and all 17 of them piled into a white stretch limousine. Their destination? A New York brewery in upstate New York to celebrate a birthday. The excited group of friends never reached their location.
The massive vehicle, speeding downhill on Saturday, approached the intersection of two highways that residents had long warned was notoriously dangerous. And in just a few seconds of terror, their worst fears were realized: The limousine lost control, careening through the intersection and striking an empty car.
The crash killed all 18 occupants of the limousine, including the driver, as well as two pedestrians, in an accident that left deep tire tracks in the ground and the small community about 40 miles west of Albany reeling.
Four sisters, two brothers, and at least 3 young couples were among the dead.
“That limo was coming down that hill probably over 60 miles per hour,” said Jessica Kirby, 36, the manager of the Apple Barrel Country Store, where she said customers were hit near the parking lot. “All fatal.”
“I don’t want to describe the scene,” she added. “It’s not something I want to think about.”
Federal Investigators arrived on scene Sunday and were scouring the accident scene for clues about the crash. The New York Police said autopsies were underway on all the passengers and the driver of the limousine, including toxicology, though they cautioned that the investigation was in the early stages. Still, the loss of life stunned even the most seasoned investigators, who called it the deadliest transportation accident since a 2009 plane crash near Buffalo that killed 50 people.
“Twenty fatalities is just horrific,” said Robert L. Sumwalt, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is launching a comprehensive investigation. “I’ve been on the board for 12 years and this is one of the biggest losses of life that we’ve seen in a long, long time.”
A day after the crash, remnants of the accidence were readily visible, including a tire torn from the limousine that lay in the mud in the overgrown creek bed, below several trees that had presumably been sawed off to access the vehicle. What appeared to be debris from the car littered the scene: mirror fragments, taillight pieces, a hairbrush.
State Police said the 2001 Ford Excursion limousine barreled down one roadway and passed through the T-intersection where the two highways intersect without stopping, crashing into another vehicle, an unoccupied 2015 Toyota Highlander, before landing in a shallow ravine beyond the road. The two pedestrians were struck near the Apple Barrel and killed.
All of those killed in the Schoharie crash were adults, the State Police said. They included at least two pairs of newlyweds and parents of young children, including 16-month-old, as family and friends quickly created GoFundMe pages to cover future expenses.
Erin Flaherty, 26, was friends with the victims. “They were together multiple times a week, always hanging out,” said Ms. Flaherty, noting that the tight-knit group of mostly 30 somethings help frequent backyard parties.
Valerie Abeling, the Aunt of Erin Vertucci, who died in the crash, said the limousine was headed toward a birthday party at a brewery in Cooperstown.
Lester Andrews, 60, of Rochester, said his two stepsons and daughter-in-law were among the people killed in the limousine crash. The brothers killed in the crash were Axel Steenburg, 29, and rich Sttenburg, 34, he said. Axel Steenburg’s wife, Amy, also died, he said and had been celebrating her 30th birthday. Three of her sisters, Mary Dyson, Allison King and Abby Jackson, also were killed, relatives said.
Axel and Amy, who lived in Amsterdam, N.Y., and were married over the summer, had rented the limousine, he said. Rich Steenburgleaves behind two children, a 10-year-old daughter, and a 14-year-old stepson, a relative said. Rich Steenburg’s wife was not feeling well on Saturday and was not in the limousine.
Mr. Andrews said even the deceased passengers’ closest relatives were still awaiting information.
“Their mother is looking for some awnsers,” he said. “She wants to know what happened to her sons.”
In an afternoon news conference outside Albany, the State Police offered few details about the accident, though Christopher Fiore, first deputy superintendent of the State Police, said that the limousine had been licensed in New York. Its driver was required to wear a seatbelt; its passengers in the back were not, he said. Only one person inside the limousine apparently survived the initial impact; that person later died after being flown in a helicopter to Albany hospital.
Stretch limousines are modified after manufacturing and are generally not subject to the same safety regulations that are imposed on the protective structures for passenger cars. Such oversized vehicles have been involved in tragic accidents in New York before: In 2015, a limousine carrying a bridal party of eight women crashed with a pickup truck in Cutchogue, N.Y., killing four people.
State Police said they have no information about the deceased driver in Saturday’s crash, or about the company where the limousine – which resembles an elongated SUV – was rented.
Alan Tavenner, the town supervisor of Schoharie, called the death toll “completely mind-boggling” in a town of 3000.
“My heart breaks for the 20 people who lost their lives,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in a statement.
Mr. Tavenner said the site of the accident was a notoriously dangerous spot, a “nasty intersection” that transportation officials have tried to fix in the past without success. “I honestly think it was a more dangerous intersection than it was before.,” he said.
The accident happened just before 2 p.m. on Saturday at the intersection of State Route 30 and State Route 30A, according to police. Route 30 leads steeply downhill to a T-intersection with Route 30A, marked only with a stop sign. The State Police and the Schoharie County Sheriff’s Office responded to the accident; the flag at the local ambulance was flying at half-staff on Sunday.
Ms. Kirby also said that the intersection was dangerous. “We’ve had three tractor-trailer type accidents – they come down that hill too fast, they go through our parking lot and they end up in the field behind our business,” she said.
Columbas Day weekend tends to be the busiest weekend of the year for Apple Barrel, Ms. Kirby said, and the store was packed. Most of her customers had arrived from New York City, New Jersey or Albany, she said.
“A lot of people from New York City come up and they do the country things, the apple picking and the sort,” she said.
Ms. Kirby said she was inside the store when she heard a loud bang. She rushed out and immediately called 911.
“We’ve heard accidents before,” she said. “You know that sound when it happens.”
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