The National Transportation Safety Board's investigation into a fatal limousine crash in northern New York has not yet found a cause, according to a preliminary report from Monday, after weeks of bickering between federal inspectors and a local prosecutor about access to physical evidence.

The crash on 6 October in rural Schoharie killed 20 people. The NTSB said the office continues to collect information on the changes and the mechanical condition of the 2001 Ford Excursion stretch limo, as well as oversight by the Department of Transportation and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

State police and prosecutors who conducted a criminal case against the operator of the vehicle had prevented the NTSB from carrying out its usual inspection protocol on the vehicle until a local court intervened two weeks ago. NTSB lawyers had said that federal inspectors could not come within 15 feet of the wreck. Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery argued that criminal cases precede. A deal mediated by Judge George Bartlett on January 29 gave NTSB access, with some restrictions.

The limo blew through a stop sign at a T-junction and crossed a state route to a parking lot where it hit an SUV vehicle. The SUV hit and killed two pedestrians and the limousine collapsed into an earthen wall in a ravine, according to the report.

The report notes that after the limo was extended from its original 11.4-meter-long wheelbase with 15 feet, seats with lap belts were installed. The chairs were from a different manufacturer and did not stand forwards like typical vehicle seats. The federal agency said it still collects information about the use of the seat belt.

The increased passenger capacity required the operations of the vehicle to be regulated by the State Department of Transportation, according to the report.

"All aspects of the Schoharie, New York, crash remain under investigation while the NTSB focuses on determining the likely cause, with the intention of providing safety advice to prevent similar accidents," the report said.

Under the agreement at the Schoharie County Court, NTSB inspectors had to visually inspect the limousine and take photographs before police experts removed the transmission and torque converter from the limo as part of the criminal investigation.

The NTSB would then be released to carry out its protocol after an accident, with the exception of the testing of brake fluid. Instead, the state police are sending a report on brake fluid tests to NTSB researchers, "who have agreed not to disclose it until the criminal case is completed," according to the court agreement. Inspectors from the Agency can also investigate parts of the limo "later in the criminal proceedings", according to the agreement.

A few weeks before the crash, the limo failed a state inspection examining things like the chassis, the suspension and the brakes. Prosecutors claim that the operator of the limo company, Nauman Hussain, has authorized a driver with an invalid license to drive an "unusable" vehicle. He has not pleaded guilty to criminal negligent murder, and his lawyer has said that investigators quickly fell to the verdict.


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