ALBANY — Some federal employees furloughed under the government shutdown may be recalled to start examining a limousine that crashed in rural upstate New York three months ago, killing 20 people, the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday.
An NTSB statement said with the help of the county court, the agency is coordinating investigative efforts into the Oct. 6 crash with the Schoharie County District Attorney's Office and New York State Police. The federal agency had complained last month that prosecutors prevented access while a criminal case against the limousine company's operator proceeded.
On Dec. 14, the NTSB sent a letter to District Attorney Susan Mallery saying "safety-critical evidence" had been lost because of its inability to inspect the vehicle that crashed in rural Schoharie. It said federal investigators may no longer be able to evaluate corrosion, which is critical when examining the brakes, or the status of the vehicle's electrical system at the time of the crash.
NTSB spokeswoman Dolline Hatchett said Thursday that prosecutors had been preventing access because the search warrant for the vehicle didn't explicitly include the federal agency. A Schoharie County judge ruled Wednesday that NTSB's statutory authority grants it access, Hatchett said. The warrant will be revised to make that clear before NTSB inspectors are given access to the limo and other evidence, she said.
Mallery's office declined to comment on Thursday.
The NTSB said Thursday that in preparation for its examination, it is having a structure built to house the vehicle at State Police headquarters near Albany, where it's now inside a tent.
"I am encouraged that the NTSB and Schoharie County DA have reached a solution allowing them to work together so that this urgent investigation can proceed," Rep. Paul Tonko said in a statement Thursday. "I remain troubled that the president has shut down the agency responsible for bringing the truth to light in this case."
The limousine company's operator, Nauman Hussain, has pleaded not guilty to criminally negligent homicide and is free on bail. Prosecutors allege he allowed an improperly licensed driver to operate an "unserviceable" vehicle.
The crash was the nation's deadliest transportation wreck in nearly a decade. The vehicle blew through a stop sign at a T-intersection and crashed in a shallow ditch beside a country store, killing the driver, 17 passengers on a birthday outing, and two pedestrians.