A limousine loaded with revelers headed to a 30th birthday party blew a stop sign at the end of a highway and plowed into a parked, unoccupied SUV, killing all 18 people in the limo and two pedestrians in the deadliest transportation accident in the United States in almost a decade, officials said Sunday.
The crash turned a relaxed Saturday afternoon into chaos at an upstate New York spot popular with tourists taking in the fall foliage, with witnesses reporting bodies on the ground and broken tree limbs everywhere. Relatives said the limousine was carrying four sisters and their friends to a birthday celebration for the youngest.
"They did the responsible thing getting a limo so they wouldn't have to drive anywhere," their aunt, Barbara Douglas, told reporters Sunday. She did not want to name them publicly but added: "They were wonderful girls. They'd do anything for you and they were very close to each other and they loved their family."
The 2001 Ford Excursion limousine was traveling southwest on state Route 30 in Schoharie, about 170 miles north of New York City, about 2 p.m. when it failed to stop at a T-junction with state Route 30A, State Police First Deputy Supt. Christopher Fiore said at a news conference in Latham, N.Y.
It went across the road and hit a vehicle parked at the Apple Barrel Country Store, killing the limo driver and 17 passengers, as well as two people outside the vehicle.
The crash "sounded like an explosion," said Linda Riley of nearby Schenectady, who was on a shopping trip with her sisters and had been in their parked car at the time at the store.
When she got out of her vehicle, she saw a body on the ground and broken tree branches everywhere, she said. People started screaming.
Customers in the parking lot were killed when they were hit by the limo coming down a hill on state Route 30 at "probably over 60 mph," the store manager, Jessica Kirby, told the New York Times.
In a Facebook post on Saturday, the store thanked emergency responders for their actions. The store posted Sunday that it was open "and could use your hugs."
Witnesses described chaos, with a massive turnout of ambulances and other responders.
"I heard some screaming. It looked serious because people were running back and forth," Bridey Finegan of Schoharie told WNYT NewsChannel 13.
Authorities didn't release names of victims or other specifics, but state police set up a hotline for family members.
Fiore didn't comment on speed, or whether the occupants of the vehicle had been wearing seat belts.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating, said its chairman, Robert Sumwalt.
"This is one of the biggest losses of life that we've seen in a long, long time," he said.
Speaking through tears, Valerie Abeling, said her niece Erin Vertucci, 34, was among the victims, along with her newlywed husband, Shane McGowan, 30. They were on their way to a friend's birthday party, she said; her own daughter had been invited along but couldn't go.
"She was a beautiful, sweet soul; he was too," Abeling said.
The couple were married at a "beautiful wedding" in June in upstate New York, Abeling said. "They had everything going for them."
Vertucci, who grew up in Amsterdam, N.Y., was an administrative assistant at St. Mary's Healthcare in Amsterdam, Abeling said.
It's the deadliest transportation accident in the U.S. since February 2009, when Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed in Buffalo, N.Y., killing 50 people, Sumwalt said.
And it appears to be the deadliest land-vehicle accident since a bus ferrying nursing home patients away from Hurricane Rita caught fire in Texas in 2005, killing 23.
The vehicle was an aftermarket stretch limousine, according to an official who was briefed on the matter but was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
But safety issues on such vehicles have arisen before, most notably after a wreck on Long Island in July 2015 in which four women on a winery tour were killed.
They were in a Lincoln Town Car that had been cut apart and rebuilt in a stretch configuration to accommodate more passengers. The limousine was trying to make a U-turn and was struck by a pickup.
A grand jury found that vehicles converted into stretch limousines often don't have safety measures including side-impact air bags, reinforced rollover protection bars and accessible emergency exits. That grand jury called on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to assemble a task force on limousine safety.
Limousines built in factories are required to meet stringent safety regulations, but when cars are converted into limos, safety features are sometimes removed, leading to gaps in safety protocols, the grand jury wrote.
On Sunday, New York's senior U.S. senator, Charles E. Schumer, noted he asked the NTSB to toughen standards after the 2015 crash. "I commend the NTSB's immediate aid on scene and am very hopeful that we will have concrete answers soon," Schumer said.
Limousine accidents remain rare, according to NTSB data. They accounted for only one death crash out of 34,439 fatal accidents in 2016, the last year for which data are available.
On Sunday, Cuomo said in a statement: "My heart breaks for the 20 people who lost their lives in this horrific accident on Saturday in Schoharie. 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."