By MICHAEL HILL and BOB SALSBERG , Associated Press
SCHOHARIE, N.Y. (AP) — The site of a devastating accident that killed two pedestrians and 18 occupants of a limousine headed to a birthday party, including four sisters, is a known danger spot that has long worried locals, according to a manager of the store that sits at the intersection where the accident happened.
The intersection had been redone in 2008 because of a fatal accident there, said Jessica Kirby, managing director of the Apple Barrel Country Store and Cafe, which is an institution in Schoharie and among the legions of leaf-peepers who take to the roads of upstate New York each autumn.
Since the reconstruction, three tractor-trailers have run through the same stop sign authorities said the limo blew and into a field behind her business, she said. Officials worked with the state to outlaw heavy trucks, she said, but there are still accidents.
And now this.
“More accidents than I can count,” she said in an email. “We have been asking for something to be done for years.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo released a statement Sunday saying he has “directed state agencies to provide every resource necessary to aid in this investigation and determine what led to this tragedy.”
Autopsies were being performed, including on the driver to see if drugs were alcohol were a factor. Authorities didn’t say whether the limo occupants were wearing seat belts, give the speed of the limo or speculate what caused the limo to run the stop sign and slam into a parked SUV.
Relatives said the limousine was carrying four sisters and their friends to a 30th birthday celebration for the youngest.
“They did the responsible thing getting a limo so they wouldn’t have to drive anywhere,” their aunt, Barbara Douglas, said Sunday. She did not want to name them publicly but added: “They were wonderful girls. They’d do anything for you and they were very close to each other and they loved their family.”
Valerie Abeling, the aunt of victim Erin Vertucci, said her 34-year-old niece and her niece’s new husband, 30-year-old Shane McGowan, were victims.
“She was a beautiful, sweet soul; he was, too, they were very sweet,” Abeling said. “They were two very young, beautiful people” who “had everything going for them.”
The 2001 Ford Excursion limousine was traveling southwest on Route 30 in Schoharie, about 170 miles (270 kilometers) north of New York City when it failed to stop at a T-junction with state Route 30A, state police said. It went across the road and hit an unoccupied SUV parked at the Apple Barrel Country Store and two pedestrians.
The crash appeared to be the deadliest land-vehicle accident in the U.S. since a bus ferrying nursing home patients away from Hurricane Rita caught fire in Texas 2005, killing 23.
And it is the deadliest transportation accident overall since February 2009, when a plane crash near Buffalo, New York, killed 50 people, said Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. The Board is investigating the crash, including whether the limo had any mechanical problems.
The Apple Barrel’s Facebook page on Sunday reflected the concern around the accident in the tight-knit community.
“Yes, are open today. And could use your hugs,” it read. “We are doing our best to cope and grieve. We are a big family at the Apple Barrel, and part of the bigger family of Schoharie. We cope by being together. And that is why we are open.”
A vigil will be held in New Amsterdam on Monday night, where the victims lived. Grief counseling is being offered at the Amsterdam school district where victim Abby Jackson was a teacher.
There were just 12 crashes involving large limos in the five years for which the agency has released statistics, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Twelve people were killed in limo crashes in that span, 2012 through 2016. Over the same period, 171,508 people were killed in 157,451 crashes involving all types of vehicles.
There was no information Sunday on the limousine, its origin or its integrity. But safety issues on such vehicles have arisen before, notably after a wreck on Long Island in July 2015 in which four women were killed.
They were in a Lincoln Town Car that had been cut apart and rebuilt in a stretch configuration to accommodate more passengers. The limousine was trying to make a U-turn and was struck by a pickup.
A grand jury found that vehicles converted into stretch limousines often don’t have safety measures including side-impact air bags, reinforced rollover protection bars and accessible emergency exits. That grand jury called on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to assemble a task force on limousine safety.
Limousines built in factories are already required to meet stringent safety regulations, but when cars are converted into limos, safety features are sometimes removed, leading to gaps in safety protocols, the grand jury wrote.
Salsberg reported from Boston. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo, Michael R. Sisak, Deepti Hajela and Verena Dobnik in New York; and John Kekis in Latham, New York.