Thousands gathered along the Mohawk River in Amsterdam, New York, for a candlelight vigil to remember the 20 victims of a limousine crash that has left a devastated community with too many questions.
The mourners congregated Monday evening near a pedestrian bridge in the city of 17,000 that was home to many of those killed. Beneath a 12-foot bronze statue of a mother and child, they prayed for strength and observed a moment of silence before a singer led the group in "Amazing Grace."
Lawmakers promised to lend their sway in providing the community answers to the questions surrounding Saturday's crash in Schoharie, about 25 miles south of Amsterdam.
"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."
Addressing the relatives of the victims, he added, "Know your loved ones are loved by this community."
State Sen. George Amedore told those in attendance that he once lost a younger brother and knew their pain. He promised them that "that void that is in your heart right now will be filled, your strength will be renewed and that peace will come back at some point, but it's going to take your effort."
Texts expressed concern before crash
The vigil began hours after Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that 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."
En route to revelry
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.
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.
All 17 passengers were killed, along with the limo's driver and two pedestrians.
As more details emerge about the apparent broken rules, investigators also are wondering whether the unusual structure of the limo may have contributed to this mass tragedy. Federal, state and local investigators flooded Schoharie to try to understand what happened.
"We don't know the cause of the accident, if it was a vehicle malfunction, if it was a driver malfunction (or) a driver error," Cuomo said.
The birthday party guests were riding in a 2001 Ford Excursion that was converted into a limousine. Those kinds of altered vehicles have worried officials because after-market modifications can affect a vehicle's structural integrity and safety, said Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board.
"That vehicle was inspected by the New York State Department of Transportation last month and failed inspection and was not supposed to be on the road," Cuomo said.
The driver was also supposed to have a commercial driver's license with passenger endorsement, but did not, the governor said.
US Department of Transportation records shows that the limo company, Prestige Limousine Chauffeur Service of Gansevoort, New York, has two drivers and three vehicles. Its vehicles were inspected five times in the last two years, and the company has had four vehicles taken out of service.
Company's vehicles off the road
In a statement Monday, the limo company said it was conducting "a detailed internal investigation to determine the cause of the accident and the steps we can take in order to prevent future accidents."
The company has already met with federal and state investigators and plans to do so again, the statement said. It has taken its fleet off the road, it said, and Cuomo said officials are working on a cease-and-desist order to keep Prestige Limousine's automobiles from operating until the investigation is over.
The company's owner, Shahed Hussain, is currently in Pakistan, State Police Maj. Robert Patnaude said.
State police officials seized three of the company's vehicles in addition to the modified limo involved in the crash, Patnaude said.
NTSB 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.