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Sunday July 12th, 2020 6:37AM

Limo on way to birthday party blows stop sign; 20 killed

By The Associated Press
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SCHOHARIE, N.Y. (AP) — A limousine on its way to a birthday party blew a stop sign at the end of a highway and plowed into a parked but unoccupied SUV, killing all 18 people in the limo and two pedestrians in the deadliest U.S. transportation accident in almost a decade, officials and a relative of one of the victims said Sunday.

The collision turned a relaxed Saturday afternoon into chaos at an upstate New York spot popular with tourists taking in the fall foliage, with witnesses reporting bodies on the ground and broken tree limbs everywhere. An aunt of one of the victims in the vehicle said the group had been on the way to a birthday celebration.

The 2001 Ford Excursion limousine was traveling southwest on Route 30 in Schoharie, about 170 miles (270 kilometers) north of New York City around 2 p.m. 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 vehicle parked at the Apple Barrel Country Store, killing the driver and 17 passengers, as well as two people outside of 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 60 mph."

In a Facebook post on Saturday, the store thanked emergency responders for their actions. The store posted Sunday that it was open "and could use your hugs."

Authorities didn't release names of victims or other specifics, but state police set up a hotline for family members.

Speaking through tears, Valerie Abeling, said her niece Erin Vertucci was among the victims, with her newlywed husband, Shane McGowan, and were on their way to the birthday party of a friend when the crash occurred. 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 was 34, McGowan 30. They met through Abeling's daughter. Vertucci, who grew up in Amsterdam, New York, was an administrative assistant at St. Mary's Healthcare in Amsterdam.

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

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, said its chairman, Robert Sumwalt.

"This is one of the biggest losses of life that we've seen in a long, long time," he said, the deadliest since February 2009 when Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed in Buffalo, New York, killing 50 people.

There was no information Sunday on the limousine or its integrity. But 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 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.

On Sunday, Cuomo released a statement saying, "My heart breaks for the 20 people who lost their lives in this horrific accident on Saturday in Schoharie. I commend the first responders who arrived on the scene and worked through the night to help. State police are working with federal and local authorities to investigate the crash, and I have directed state agencies to provide every resource necessary to aid in this investigation and determine what led to this tragedy."

___

Kekis reported from Latham, New York. Associated Press writer David Klepper in Providence, Rhode Island, contributed to this report.

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