Driver in deadly limo crash was ‘reliable employee,’ company says

The limo driver in the deadly crash in upstate New York was a “great driver” and longtime employee of Prestige Limousine Chauffeur Service, the company’s attorney said Tuesday.

Authorities say the driver did not have the proper license and that the vehicle had failed a recent inspection. But lawyer Lee Kindlon said the company’s owner thought the driver had a proper license. The company checked with the Department of Motor Vehicles “a number of different times” and were told that he did, Kindlon said.

Kindlon also disagreed with statements that the stretched Ford Excursion should not have been on the road. “I am disputing that any recent failures of minor safety defects contributed to this crash,” he said.

Authorities identified the driver as Scott T. Lisinicchia, 53, of Lake George, New York. Kindlon called him a “very reliable employee and a great driver.”

Lisinicchia was among the 20 people who died in the wreck Saturday in Schoharie, New York, about 25 miles south of Amsterdam. Authorities have released the names of the 17 passengers, who rented the limo for a birthday party, and two pedestrians killed in the crash, along with the driver’s identity.

For reasons still unknown, the limo plowed through a stop sign and crashed into a parked SUV, causing the deadliest US transportation accident in almost a decade. Federal, state and local investigators have flooded Schoharie to try to understand what happened.

The wreck also has placed Prestige Limousine Chauffeur Service and its owner, Shahed Hussain, under scrutiny.

Before he owned the company, the Pakistani national was an informant for the FBI, two sources confirmed to CNN. He became an informant after he was convicted of fraud while he worked as a translator for the Department of Motor Vehicles in Albany, New York, records show.

He conducted an undercover investigation for several months in 2008 and 2009, court records show.

Condition of vehicle disputed

The birthday party guests were riding in a 2001 Ford Excursion that was converted into a limousine. As more details emerge about the apparent broken rules, investigators also are looking into whether the unusual structure of the limo may have contributed to this mass tragedy.

The company bought the Excursion already modified “just a couple of years ago,” its lawyer said. The state Department of Transportation conducted a periodic inspection last week and discovered “minor safety infractions,” including inoperative or defective windshield wipers and a broken latch on a window, Kindlon said.

Both issues were fixed, Kindlon said, and last week the state DOT indicated that the vehicle “was roadworthy and they could drive it.”

He disputed Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s statement that the vehicle failed its inspection.

“I would just ask for the investigation to take place so we can figure out exactly why the vehicle crashed,” Kindlon said.

State officials charged back, saying the vehicle was not allowed to be in service.

“The assertion that the limousine was cleared to be on the road following the September inspection is categorically false,” said Joseph Morrissey, spokesman for the New York State Department of Transportation. “The vehicle was subject to inspections and the owner was warned not to operate the vehicle; the vehicle was placed out of service.”

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the vehicle had the following three violations in a September 4 inspection that earned it an “out of service” designation, meaning it could not be on the road because it poses an imminent hazard:

— Operating a vehicle with seating in excess of the manufacturer’s designed seating capacity

— No or defective bus emergency exits

— Inspection, repair and maintenance of parts and accessories

It had an additional seven violations that did not earn an “out of service” designation, including defective windshield wipers and failure to correct defects previously noted.

Company’s vehicles off the road

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt said investigators are working to learn the vehicle’s speed at the time of the crash, more about the driver’s state, whether all 19 seats in the limo had lap-shoulder belts, and whether the passengers were wearing them, which is not required by law.

The company said it has taken its fleet off the road, and state police seized three of the company’s vehicles in addition to the modified limo involved in the crash, State Police Maj. Robert Patnaude said.

Cuomo said officials are working on a cease-and-desist order to keep its vehicles from operating until the investigation is over.

Prestige Limousine Chauffeur Service is looking into Lisinicchia’s history as part of an internal investigation, Kindlon said. The company has met with federal and state investigators and plans to do so again. It is collecting maintenance records, driver logs and ownership records, and intends to turn them over to authorities, he added.

The company’s owner is currently in Pakistan, where he travels frequently, his lawyer said. He “wanted everybody to know that if, in fact, he’s needed here, he is ready and able to come back whenever they need him.”

He skirted deportation for his conviction by agreeing to cooperate with an investigation into another person. In 2007, Hussain became a paid informant for the FBI and started working in the lower Hudson Valley, records show. Hussain’s job was to locate Muslims who may be plotting against the United States, records show.

Hussain attended services at a mosque in Newburgh at the direction of the FBI in 2008, records show. The FBI equipped him with a home that had concealed audio and video recording equipment as well as audio equipment for his car. Hussain presented himself as a wealthy Pakistani immigrant who knew about Islamic teachings.

He testified in at least one federal case, records show.

Texts expressed concern before crash

Thousands gathered Monday night for a candlelight vigil in Amsterdam, a city of 17,000 that was home to many of those killed. Beneath a 12-foot bronze statue of a mother and child near a pedestrian bridge, they prayed for strength and observed a moment of silence before a singer led the group in “Amazing Grace.”

Lawmakers at the vigil promised to help find answers to the questions surrounding Saturday’s crash. “I’ve always known it be a loving community,” US Rep. Paul Tonko said. “As I gather with you this evening, I see it manifested in a very powerful expression.”

Monday’s vigil began hours after Cuomo said the vehicle had failed a state inspection in September. He said the modified limo involved in the fatal crash wasn’t supposed to be on the road and that the driver “did not have the appropriate driver’s license to be operating that vehicle.”

At least one victim seemed worried about the condition of the limo, according to text messages shared with The New York Times.

The recently married Erin Vertucci McGowan sent a text message to her friend and maid of honor saying that their party bus had broken down on the way to celebrate a friend’s birthday. They had rented a stretch limo to pick them up, the newspaper reported. She did not know where they had procured the vehicle, she texted.

“The motor is making everyone deaf,” McGowan said in one text, according to the Times.

In another, she wrote, “When we get to brewery we will all b deaf.”

Victims identified

Before the disaster, the 17 birthday party guests in the limo — including newlyweds, young couples and four sisters –were headed to an upstate New York brewery. Authorities released their names Tuesday:

Axel J. Steenburg, 29, Amsterdam, NY

Richard M. Steenburg, 34, Johnstown, NY

Amy L. Steenburg, 29, Amsterdam, NY

Allison King, 31, Ballston Spa, NY

Mary E. Dyson, 33, Watertown, NY

Robert J. Dyson, 34, Watertown, NY

Abigail M. Jackson, 34, Amsterdam, NY

Matthew W. Coons, 27, Johnstown, NY

Savannah D. Bursese, 24, Johnstown, NY

Patrick K. Cushing, 31, Troy, NY

Amanda D. Halse, 26, Fort Ann, NY

Erin R. McGowan, 34, Amsterdam, NY

Shane T. McGowan, 30, Amsterdam, NY

Amanda Rivenburg, 29, Colonie, NY

Adam G. Jackson, 34, Amsterdam, NY

The pedestrians were identified as Rachael K. Cavosie, 30, of Waterford and Michael C. Ukaj, 34 of Johnstown.