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United States

Limousine horror: 20 die in worst US road crash in a decade

The collision in upstate New York turned a Saturday afternoon into chaos at a spot popular with tourists taking in the fall foliage

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 October, 2018, 4:17am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 October, 2018, 10:13pm

A limousine loaded with revellers headed to a 30th birthday party blew a stop sign at the end of a highway and slammed into an SUV parked outside a store, killing all 18 people in the limo and two pedestrians in the deadliest US transport accident in almost a decade, officials and relatives of the victims said.

The collision turned a relaxed Saturday afternoon into chaos at an upstate New York spot popular with tourists taking in the fall foliage. Relatives said the limousine was carrying four sisters and their friends to a 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, told reporters on 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.”

The 2001 Ford Excursion limousine was travelling southwest on Route 30 in Schoharie, about 270 kilometres (170 miles) north of New York City around 2pm when it failed to stop at a T-junction with state Route 30A, State Police First Deputy Superintendent Christopher Fiore said at a news conference in Latham, New York.

It went across the road and hit an unoccupied SUV parked at the Apple Barrel Country Store, killing the limousine driver and 17 passengers, as well as two people outside the vehicle.

The crash “sounded like an explosion,” said Linda Riley, of nearby Schenectady, who was on a shopping trip with her sisters and had been in their parked car at the time at the store.

When she got out of her vehicle, she saw a body on the ground, she said. People started screaming.

The store manager, Jessica Kirby, told The New York Times that the limo was coming down a hill at “probably over 60mph”.

Authorities said autopsies were being performed and didn’t release names of victims or speculate on what caused the limo to run the stop sign.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.

Speaking through tears on the telephone, Valerie Abeling said her 34-year-old niece Erin Vertucci was among the victims, along with Vertucci’s newlywed husband, 30-year-old Shane McGowan. They were on their way to a friend’s birthday party, she said; her own daughter had been invited along but couldn’t go.

“She was a beautiful, sweet soul; he was too,” Abeling said.

The couple was married at a “beautiful wedding” in June at a venue in upstate New York, Abeling said. “They had everything going for them.”

Vertucci, who grew up in Amsterdam, New York, was an administrative assistant at St. Mary’s Healthcare in Amsterdam, Abeling said.

At the news conference, Fiore didn’t comment on speed, or whether the occupants of the vehicle had been wearing seat belts.

“This is one of the biggest losses of life that we’ve seen in a long, long time,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt told reporters.

It’s the deadliest transport accident since February 2009, when Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed in Buffalo, New York, killing 50 people, Sumwalt said.

And it appears to be the deadliest land-vehicle accident since a bus ferrying nursing home patients away from Hurricane Rita caught fire in Texas 2005, killing 23.

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.”

The vehicle was an after-market stretch limousine, according to an official who was briefed on the matter.

Safety issues on such vehicles have arisen before, most notably after a wreck on Long Island in July 2015 in which four women on a winery tour 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 airbags, reinforced rollover protection bars and accessible emergency exits.

Limousine accidents remain rare, according to NTSB data. They accounted for only one death crash out of 34,439 fatal accidents in 2016, the last year for which data is available.

Other deadly US traffic accidents

2005: A bus ferrying nursing home residents away from Hurricane Rita caught fire and exploded while stuck on a gridlocked highway south of Dallas, killing 23 people.

1999: A bus heading to a casino in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, ran off a highway on Mother’s Day, killing 22 people. Investigators said the driver was impaired by severe medical conditions and use of marijuana and an antihistamine.

1989: A school bus collided with a soft drink truck and fell into a water-filled pit near Mission, Texas. Twenty-one students were killed and 60 injured.

1988: A church bus returning from an amusement park collided head-on with a pickup near Carrollton, Kentucky, killing 24 children and three adults on the bus.

1986: A speeding Starline Sightseeing Tours coach crashed in a California canyon, killing 21 passengers.

1980: A tour bus carrying mostly senior citizens from Dallas to Branson, Missouri, plunged into a 40-foot ravine near Jasper, Arkansas, killing 20 people and injuring 13.

1976: A bus carrying students from the Yuba City, California, High School choir plunged off a freeway ramp near Martinez, killing 28 students and a teacher.

1963: A makeshift bus carrying 58 migrant workers was struck by a freight train outside Chualar, California. Thirty-two workers died in what remains the deadliest motor vehicle accident in U.S. history.

1958: A bus carrying 48 elementary and high school students went off the road in Prestonburg, Kentucky, lunged down an embankment and into swollen river waters, where it was swept downstream and submerged, killing 27.

1952: Two Greyhound buses collided before dawn south of Waco, Texas, killing 28 people. Many soldiers and airmen were among the dead.