Four sisters and their husbands are among 20 people dead after a limousine taking them to a surprise 30th birthday careened through a junction, hit two pedestrians and then plunged into a steep ditch.
Abigail Jackson, Mary Dyson, Allison King, and Amy Steenburg – whose birthday they were en route to celebrating – all died alongside husbands Adam Jackson, Robert Dyson and Axel Steenburg in the crash, which happened around 2 pm on Saturday in upstate New York.
In total 18 people inside the limo – a group of relatives, school and neighborhood friends from the town of Amsterdam – were killed alongside two pedestrians in America’s deadliest transportation accident since a plane crash killed 50 in 2009.
The limousine had been coming down a hill in Schoharie when it failed to stop at a junction, suggesting that either a brake failure or driver error was to blame – though police say they will not speculate on the cause until their investigation has completed.
The sisters’ devastated aunt said yesterday: ‘My brother and his wife are just overwrought,’ she said. ‘I don’t know how to say it. Can’t wrap your head around such a tragedy where you have four of your daughters die.’
Just days before the crash Amy had uploaded a post gushing about husband Axel, whom she married in June, to Facebook which read: ‘I love you more than words can say.’
Tributes poured in online after the accident, as surviving relatives identified their loved ones among the victims.
Abby Jackson and her husband Adam, parents to four-year-old Archer and 16-month-old Abby, were killed.
Amy and her husband Axel Steenburg, 29, who only got married in June this year, along with Axel’s 34-year-old brother Rich Steenburg, were also killed.
Mary Dyson and her husband Robert, as well as her sister Allison King, were also among the casualties.
The family has also identified newlyweds Erin McGowan, 34, and her husband Shane McGowan, 30, as two of the victims. They only just got married in June.
Erin cousin’s, Patrick Cushing, was also among the dead.
The limo driver has also been named, by his twin brother, as Scott Lisinicchia, 53. He was headed to Cooperstown when the limo crashed.
Family members told the Washington Post that the group hadn’t even meant to get the limousine which crashed. They had rented ‘some kind of bus’ to go the Cooperstown but it broke down before it arrived at the party venue, so the rental company sent the stretch limousine instead.
Erin McGowan was so disturbed by the state of the car she texted her sister saying: ‘The vehicle appeared in terrible condition,’ according to her aunt Valerie Abeling.
Within twenty minutes of the text, all the passengers were dead.
The sisters’ aunt Barbara Douglas said the family was devastated by their loss.
‘One just got married and that’s what this was: her new husband was giving her a surprise birthday party,’ she told the New York Post.
‘They did the responsible thing getting a limo so they wouldn’t be driving,’ Douglas added to NBC News.
She described all four sisters, who were aged 35 to 30, as ‘beautiful girls, full of life’ and said two were mothers.
‘They had their whole lives ahead of them,’ she said.
Douglas spoke of the family’s tragedy while visiting the scene of the wreck.
‘My brother (the sisters’ father) told me that when [the police] called him they didn’t know if the brakes went out or what, but they were all dead,’ she said.
‘My brother and his wife are just overwrought,’ she said. ‘I don’t know how to say it. Can’t wrap your head around such a tragedy where you have four of your daughters die.’
Matthew Coons, a US Army veteran, and his girlfriend Savannah Devonne also died in the accident.
A local official warned that the road had been an accidental black spot for years.
‘There have been tractor trailers that have come barreling down that hill and it was a miracle they didn’t kill somebody,’ Schoharie Town Supervisor Alan Tavenner told the Albany Times Union.
The state Department of Transportation did make improvements seven years ago but locals say it did little to improve the safety.
‘If I was the apple barrel owners I would be demanding some sort of barriers to protect my business and customers,’ Barb Bender wrote on the Schoharie Co. FireWire Facebook page.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it was the deadliest transportation accident in the US since a 2009 plane crash in Buffalo killed 50 people.
Witnesses say the limo was coming over the hill at more than 60 miles per hour before the crash which ‘sounded like an explosion.’
Bystanders tried to rescue the limo’s passengers from the vehicle which had fallen into a ravine, ’20 to 30 feet deep.’
‘I saw one person that was down by the limo and a few others trying to climb down,’ witness Steve White told the Daily News after the crash.
New York State Police said the 2001 Ford Excursion limousine was traveling south on State Route 30 when it failed to stop at the intersection with State Route 30A around 1.55pm on Saturday.
It traveled across the intersection and into the parking lot for the popular Apple Barrel County Store in Schoharie, where it hit a parked 2015 Toyota Highlander that was unoccupied.
Two pedestrians standing nearby were struck and killed.
Anthony Vertucci, Erin’s uncle, spoke of the ‘darkness and devastation’ that had hit his family and shared photos of his daughter’s wedding day in a heartbreaking tribute.
‘My heart has stopped,’ he wrote. ‘Unspeakable tragedy that I can’t comprehend and will never come to terms with.’
‘I just wanted all of you to see pictures of Erin and Shane, these two beautiful and amazing people, on the best and happiest days of their lives.
Lauren Lemos, a cousin of four of the victims, couldn’t hold back tears as she told Spectrum News that they were: ‘Wonderful people.’
‘They are just wonderful, kind, loving…’ she said. ‘You couldn’t have met better people than they were.
‘They were all very active parents and involved in their children’s lives.’
Susan Minicki McGowan, Shane’s mother, also shared a photo and tribute to her son and daughter-in-law.
‘Our family will never the same after the tragic deaths of our son Shane and daughter Erin,’ she wrote.
A GoFundMe campaign was launched for Archer and Elle after they lost both parents in the crash.
‘Adam and Abby were amazing parents to these girls and taken much too soon,’ the description reads.
‘While families will step in and provide loving care for these girls, there will be expenses that we can help with during this time when we otherwise feel so helpless.’
Lester Andrews, a stepfather to Axel and Rich Steenburg, said Axel and Amy – who only tied the knot this summer – rented the limo.
When Andres went to pick up Axel’s dog on Saturday night, he saw dozens of cars parked in front of his stepson’s house.
He said investigators used the license plate to help identify victims who were in the limousine.
Initial reports claimed the limousine was traveling to a wedding, but family members of the victims have since said that’s not the case.
Andrews said he did not know why the group rented the limousine, and a sister-in-law of one of the victims said it had nothing to do with a wedding.
Valerie Abeling, the aunt of one of the victims, said the limo was on its way to a birthday celebration.
Erin Flaherty was friends with a number of the victims, who she said were ‘together multiple times a week’ and ‘always hanging out’.
Bridey Finnegan, who lives near the crash site, said she heard a ‘loud bang’ when the two vehicles collided in front of Apple Barrel, a store popular with tourists.
‘I heard a loud bang, I came out my front door to see what was going on,’ she told WTEN.
‘I saw a lot of people here at the Apple Barrel out in the parking lot. Then I heard screaming.’
‘Then I saw this large van, a very unusual looking vehicle out here in Schoharie in the bushes and really wrecked, hit a tree.’
Finnegan said she watched as first responders broke windows to try and rescue people inside.
And witnesses said several bodies could be seen on the ground outside the store.
Jessica Kirby, the manager of Apple Barrel, said the limo was ‘coming down that hill probably over 60 miles per hour’.
‘I don’t want to describe the scene. It’s not something I want to think about,’ she told the New York Times.
The Schoharie County Sheriff’s Office, New York State Police, and emergency crews from the Red Cross all responded to the scene.
Six ambulances, three fire companies, and two helicopters were at the accident site, according to the Albany Times Union.
Witnesses also saw people running out of the Apple Barrel cafe to try and help after the accident.
New York Gov Andrew Cuomo released a statement on Sunday afternoon, saying his ‘heart breaks for the 20 people who lost their lives in this horrific accident’.
‘I commend the first responders who arrived on the scene and worked through the night to help. State police are working with federal and local authorities to investigate the crash, and I have directed State agencies to provide every resource necessary to aid in this investigation and determine what led to this tragedy.’
‘I join all New Yorkers in mourning these deaths and share in the unspeakable sorrow experienced by their families.’
Apple Barrel closed following the crash on Saturday and released a statement about the tragic incident on Facebook.
‘As you may be aware, there was a horrific accident in front of our business today,’ the statement read.
‘First, we want to thank all of the emergency services that responded. We are so thankful for all of you.’
‘We will be open for business for tomorrow. We hope you will come and share your smiles, love, friendship, and hugs with us. We also hope you will share your change. We will be collecting donations for our local volunteer emergency services. They are the heroes of our small community.’
‘Our hearts and prayers go out to everyone that was affected by the events of today. You will always be part of our family.’
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a ‘go-team’, which is used to investigate major accidents, to the crash site from Washington DC on Sunday morning.
Alan Tavenner, the Schoharie Town Supervisor, said the state’s Department of Transportation tried to make the intersection safer seven years ago, but that the changes did little to help.
‘There have been tractor trailers that have come barreling down that hill and it was a miracle they didn’t kill somebody,’ he said.
‘I honestly think it was a more dangerous intersection than it was before.’
Large trucks had also recently been banned from coming down the intersection to help prevent future accidents.
Kirby said there have been three separate incidents in which ‘tractor-trailer type vehicles’ came down the hill to fast, traveled into the Apple Barrel parking lot, and ‘end up in a field behind our business’.
‘We’ve heard accidents before,’ she said. ‘You know that sound when it happens.’
The crash occurred during the city’s ‘Old Stone Fort’ weekend, which residents said is the biggest tourism day of the year for the small town.
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