SCHOHARIE, N.Y. (AP) — Federal investigators will finally be able to perform a hands-on inspection of the limousine in a crash that killed 20 people in October, ending a long public impasse with the criminal prosecutor.
The agreement reached in Schoharie County court Tuesday is designed to end the public feud between the National Transportation Safety Board and the local prosecutor over who had priority to fully inspect the vehicle involved in the nation’s deadliest transportation debacle in nearly a decade.
The modified 2001 Ford Excursion blew through a stop sign at a T-intersection on Oct. 6 in rural Schoharie, New York, and crashed beside a country store, killing the driver, 17 passengers on a birthday outing and two pedestrians.
Under the deal, NTSB can make a visual inspection of the limousine Tuesday and take photographs. Then police experts will be clear to remove the limo’s transmission and torque converter. The NTSB can proceed with a hands-on inspection after that within the next two weeks.
“All I’m interested in is making sure everyone is able to do what they’re charged with doing,” Schoharie County Judge George Bartlett said during the hearing.
State police counsel Amanda Nissen had argued in court that the transmission and torque converter must be removed by a police expert before the NTSB does its examination. The NTSB had argued its protocol must be done first.
The limousine was shipped to state police headquarters near Albany after the deadly crash and is housed in a tent behind the building.
Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery, who has declined media requests for comment, said in her letters to the court that criminal trials take precedence and that her office dictates access to all evidence, including the wreckage.
“It is concerning that politics are seemingly of much greater concern to some than justice for the victims and grieving families of the tragic limousine crash,” Mallery said in a Jan. 16 letter to the court. She accused the NTSB of spreading “legal and factual inaccuracies” through an “extensive press campaign.”
NTSB lawyer Kathleen Silbaugh said Mallery has blocked federal investigators from getting closer than 15 feet (4.5 meters) from the wreckage and that evidence critical to the safety evaluation may have been lost.
“The court cannot comprehend how law enforcement precluding access to the vehicle by the NTSB serves the public interest,” Bartlett said in a Jan. 18 letter.
The vehicle had failed a state inspection that examined such things as the chassis, suspension and brakes.
Prosecutors allege the limo company’s operator, Nauman Hussain, allowed an improperly licensed driver to operate an “unserviceable” vehicle. He has pleaded not guilty to criminally negligent homicide and his lawyer has said investigators rushed to judgment.
“Both the district attorney and the NTSB have separate, but equally important functions,” Bartlett wrote. “Law enforcement to bring anyone criminally responsible to justice and the NTSB to ascertain the cause of the accident, recommend any remedial action so as to, hopefully, prevent future accidents and, thus, protect the public.”
Bartlett scheduled the court hearing, saying, “This standoff must come to an end.” He said the court, not the prosecutor, has ultimate control over the evidence in the case and that he’ll make a decision allowing NTSB access if the two sides don’t hash out an agreement on their own.