The operator of the limousine that crashed in upstate New York in October 2018, killing 20 people, had taken measures to evade safety regulations, including repeatedly falsifying the vehicle’s seating capacity and alterations, according to documents released last week by federal investigators.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a trove of documents related to its investigation of the Oct. 6, 2018, crash in Schoharie ahead of making a final determination of the cause, which is expected later this month.

Falsified registration records

Among the documents are a number of vehicle inspection reports for the 2001 Ford Excursion limo, owned and operated by Prestige Limousine of Saratoga Springs, New York. The documents show that the company deliberately worked to avoid more rigorous inspection rules intended to ensure that modified vehicles have the braking capacity and other requirements for carrying a heavier load than the limits of its original manufactured state.

When Prestige registered the limo, it didn’t disclose to the Department of Motor Vehicles that it been stretched to accommodate more passengers, as required by law. While the seating capacity of the vehicle was 18, the company falsely listed it as 11 upon registration. Prestige further lowered the capacity to 8 in 2017, then up to 10 in 2018.

Being truthful about the seating capacity would have subjected the vehicle to semi-annual safety inspections. Under New York law, any vehicle with 15 or more seats is classified as a bus and consequently falls under closer regulatory scrutiny.

Failed inspections

The falsifications didn’t seem to help hide the vehicle’s problems from inspectors. The stretch limo was cited multiple times for its failed inspections that were part of a New York State Department of Transportation investigation of Prestige for operating a limo service without the proper certification. State regulators ordered violation notices twice but Prestige continued to operate.

On Sept. 1, 2018, just weeks before the deadly crash, state regulators hit Prestige with a third violation. On Sept. 4, an inspector found that safety problems discovered in previous inspections had not been repaired. Among those was a brake line to the front left axle that dangled from the vehicle in a way that could put it in contact with the left front tire. For these violations, the limo was ordered out of service.

Nauman Hussain, the 30-year-old operator of Prestige, was supposed to appear for a hearing before an administrative judge the day before the crash but he failed to show, and a $2,000 penalty was issued.

A group of friends rented the unsafe limo to go to a birthday party at Brewery Ommegang near Cooperstown, New York. As the vehicle was traveling a downhill stretch of State Route 30 in Schoharie, its braked failed. The limo careened through a stop sign at a T-intersection at the bottom of the hill and crashed in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Store and Café. The crash killed the driver, all 17 passengers, and two bystanders.

Troubling texts

Some of the passengers texted friends and family about the poor condition and performance of the limo as they embarked on the drive. One passenger texted that “the limo sounds like it is going to explode” and added, “it’s a junker, literally.”

“The motor is making everyone deaf,” another passenger texted about a half-hour before the crash, adding several crying emojis. “When we get to the brewery we will all b deaf,” she later said.

The driver of another vehicle who was nearly hit by the out-of-control limo told NTSB investigators that the noise the vehicle made sounded like a “jet plane.”

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