Published 6:55 PM EDT Oct 12, 2018
ALBANY, N.Y. – The limousine crash that killed 20 people last week was the worst accident in the U.S. in nine years, and it leaves a host of unanswered questions.
Authorities were expected to continue their investigation for at least a few more days, and the National Transportation Safety Board has been on site every day.
But so far, police and investigators have offered few insights into what exactly caused the Oct. 6 crash in the middle of the day on a rural road in the town of Schoharie.
The operator of the limo company, Prestige Limo, was charged Wednesday with criminally negligent homicide.
"Other persons potential involvement is the subject of a continuing investigation," was all New York State Police Superintendent George Beach said Wednesday.
Here are the unanswered questions in the horrific crash.
What's the latest with the investigation?
State Police and the NTSB have said little in recent days about where their investigation is headed or what they have found.
State Police from the outset said it was investigating the crash as a criminal case. And that bore out Wednesday when the limo company operator Nauman Hussain was charged.
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It could take weeks if not months for the NTSB to make its findings public.
But State Police said it has plenty of evidence to follow.
"Data is being collected from the scene and that information will be examined and analyzed," State Police said,
"State Police are in possession of the airbag control module, what would be considered the vehicle’s black box, and that is being analyzed for post-crash data."
Did the driver make an error?
This is one of the many questions the National Transportation Safety Board will seek to answer in its investigation.
It isn't yet clear whether the driver of the limousine, Scott Lisinicchia, 53, made any avoidable errors when he drove through an intersection at the bottom of a hill and crashed into an unoccupied vehicle before the limo came to rest in a ditch.
There were no skidmarks left at the scene of the crash, though that doesn't necessarily mean the driver didn't attempt to brake, State Police said.
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Autopsy results will answer whether Lisinicchia, who was one of the 20 killed in the crash, was in any way impaired during the incident.
An attorney for Lisinicchia's family issued a statement saying the family believes Prestige Limousine gave him a faulty car to drive.
"The family believes that unbeknownst to him he was provided with a vehicle that was neither roadworthy nor safe for any of its occupants," the attorney, George Longworth, said in a statement.
The state says Lisinicchia didn't have the appropriate "passenger clearance" on his commercial driver's license to operate a vehicle with capacity to carry more than 15 passengers.
Were there mechanical problems with the limousine and did they contribute to the crash?
This is another question the NTSB probably will seek to answer.
Inspection records for the 2001 Ford Excursion show state inspectors found numerous issues with the vehicle.
Those included issues with the brake system as recently as September, with the state Department of Transportation taking the vehicle out of service until the company could prove it made the repairs.
Lee Kindlon, an attorney for Prestige Limousine and the Hussain family, said the repairs were made after the inspection.
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The DOT, however, says it did not certify the car to be back on the road.
"As per DOT's specific directive, this vehicle should not have been operating as a commercial vehicle on the road, period," the agency said Wednesday.
"We did not approve the vehicle for use. It should never have been on the road to begin with."
What about the intersection?
That's another issue under review.
The accident occurred at the bottom of steep hill at the intersection of Route 30A and Route 30 next to a country store – where two bystanders were among the 20 killed.
Neighbors said the grade of the road has been problematic, and a decade ago the state changed it from a Y-shaped intersection to a T-shaped intersection.
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In all, the state DOT said four accident have occurred there over the last decade.
But the safety of the intersection is part of the investigation, authorities said.
Schoharie Town Supervisor Alan Tavenner said days after the crash, "There were problems with tractor-trailers losing their brakes on that hill.”
In fact, tractor trailers were banned from Route 30 years ago.
Why wasn't the limo impounded?
On Aug. 25, State Police said a trooper stopped the limo in Saratoga Springs, New York, and issued violations to the company and to Lisinicchia that he was operating the limo without the proper license.
"The Trooper also took steps to ensure that the vehicle was taken off the road, returned to its original location and directed the driver not to drive the vehicle," State Police said.
Then a month later, the limo failed an inspection by the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
But while the limo was affixed with a sticker that it couldn't operate, the state didn't impound it – and then it ended up back on the road.
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In the case of the police stop in August, "The Trooper did not have the legal authority to seize the plates or the vehicle during that stop," State Police said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said it wasn't about the state's actions. It was the company that continued to operate a limo that was repeatedly deemed unsafe by the state.
"So sometimes you say, ‘Well, maybe we should inspect more frequently. Maybe this, maybe this,' " he told reporters Monday.
"Sometimes people just don’t follow the law, and that may be what happened here."
Will the owner of the limousine company be charged?
The owner of Prestige Limousine, Shahed Hussain, has not yet been charged with a crime.
His whereabouts could be a complicating factor: Shahed Hussain is currently in Pakistan. He was there before the crash, Kindlon said.
Beach, the police superintendent, said Wednesday that he does not have the authority to compel Shahed Hussain to come back to the U.S.
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"My understanding that the father remains out of country at this time but that will remain part of the investigation as well," Beach said.
Kindlon said Shahed Hussain will cooperate with the investigation and return if necessary.
Nauman Hussain, Shahed's son, acted as the operator of the limousine company, according to State Police. He was arrested and released on $150,000 bond Thursday.
"The sole responsibility for that motor vehicle being on the road on Saturday rests with Nauman Hussain," Beach said.
Will Nauman Hussain face more charges?
Nauman Hussain is currently facing a single count of criminally negligent homicide, a Class E felony that is punishable by up to four years in prison.
All 20 victims were listed by State Police within the single count.
The charge accuses Nauman Hussain of having "grossly deviated from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe" because he knew (or should have known) Lisinicchia wasn't properly licensed and that the limo was in disrepair.
It's possible it could be split into separate charges for each victim at a later date, which would mean he could face significantly more jail time.
"Any changes to that will be done with the consent and on the direction of the Schoharie County district attorney," Beach said.
Beach said Nauman Hussain received written notification that Lisinicchia didn't have the proper license when the driver was pulled over weeks prior to the accident.
Who will be liable?
The question of who will be held liable for the crash will ultimately determine who will compensate the victims’ families for their loss.
In civil court, liability can be split among several parties.
Will the limousine company be liable for allowing the vehicle on the road despite it failing inspection and the driver not having the right license allowances?
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Will the state be liable for the safety of the intersection, which is at the bottom of a large hill and has long been cited by residents as troublesome?
What about the driver’s estate?
Those are all questions that probably will be answered in civil court. The victims’ families have 90 days from the time of the accident to file what’s known as a “notice of claim” against the state.
“Could there be some fault with Prestige? Could there be some fault here? Absolutely,” Kindlon, the attorney for the Hussain family, said.
“Is it criminal? Absolutely not. What about the state of New York?”
What was happening that day?
Seventeen friends, many married or related and from Amsterdam, New York, were heading to Ommegang, a craft brewery in Cooperstown, to celebrate a friend's 30th birthday.
It was the birthday for Amy Steenburg, a newlywed and the youngest of the four sisters in the limousine.
They were all killed along with her husband and brother-in-law.
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The trip also leaves some unanswered questions.
It's about a one-hour car trip between Amsterdam and Cooperstown, but it's unclear why the limo was in Schoharie – which would seem to be out of the way.
Police haven't clarified the limo's route.
“I have had some basic (conversations), how was he getting from A to B, the routes and all those things," Kindlon said.
"Some of those questions we can’t answer, unfortunately.”
Will it lead to change?
Probably so. About 20 states do require back-seat passengers in limos to wear seat belts.
New York is not one of them. New York only requires the front-seat passenger and driver to wear seat belts.
Also, it could promote new regulations on how limos are overseen.
Not only did the limo not have a state inspection, it appeared to lack a federal certificate for an SUV that was converted to a stretch limousine, Cuomo said.
"We got to let the NTSB do their job. We need to let the State Police do their job," Assemblyman Christopher Tague, a Republican from Schoharie, told reporters at the scene Monday.
"And then we'll take the information that they give us, and we will bring legislation after we get the reports back from all the investigators."
Follow Jon Campbell and Joseph Spector on Twitter: @JonCampbellGAN and @GannettAlbany