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20 dead in crash of limo headed to a birthday celebration

SCHOHARIE — A limousine carrying four sisters, other relatives and friends to a birthday celebration blew through a stop sign and slammed into a parked SUV outside a store, killing all 18 people in the limo and two pedestrians, officials and victims' relatives said Sunday.

The weekend crash was characterized by authorities as the deadliest U.S. transportation accident in nearly a decade. The crash turned a relaxed Saturday afternoon to horror at a rural spot popular with tourists viewing the region's fall foliage. Relatives said the limousine was carrying the sisters and their friends to a 30th birthday celebration for the youngest.

"They were wonderful girls," said their aunt, Barbara Douglas, speaking with reporters Sunday. "They'd do anything for you and they were very close to each other and they loved their family."

Douglas said three of the sisters were with their husbands, and she identified them as Amy and Axel Steenburg, Abigail and Adam Jackson, Mary and Rob Dyson and Allison King.

"They did the responsible thing getting a limo so they wouldn't have to drive anywhere," she said, adding the couples had several children between them who they left at home.

The 2001 Ford Excursion limousine was traveling southwest on Route 30 in Schoharie, about 170 miles (270 kilometers) north of New York City, when it failed to stop at 2 p.m. Saturday at a T-junction with state Route 30A, State Police First Deputy Superintendent Christopher Fiore said at a news conference in Latham, New York.

It went across the road and hit an unoccupied SUV parked at the Apple Barrel Country Store, killing the limousine driver, the 17 passengers, and 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. She had been in another car parked at the store, saw a body on the ground and heard people start screaming.

The store manager, Jessica Kirby, told The New York Times the limo was coming down a hill at "probably over 60 mph." In an email to The Associated Press, she complained that the junction where the crashed occurred is accident-prone.

"We have had 3 tractor trailer type trucks run through the stop through our driveway and into a field behind the business," Kirby wrote. "All of these occurred during business hours and could've killed someone then."

She added that the state Department of Transportation has banned heavy trucks from the intersection but there are constant smaller crashes. "More accidents than I can count."

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.

"This is one of the biggest losses of life that we've seen in a long, long time," NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said.

It's the deadliest transportation accident since February 2009, when Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed near Buffalo, New York, 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 2005, killing 23.

At the news conference, Fiore didn't comment on the limo's speed, or whether the limo occupants were wearing seat belts. Authorities didn't release the names of the victims or speculate on what caused the limo to run the stop sign. Autopsies were being conducted.

Speaking through tears on the telephone, Valerie Abeling said her 34-year-old niece Erin Vertucci was among the victims, along with Vertucci's newlywed husband, 30-year-old Shane McGowan.

"She was a beautiful, sweet soul; he was too," Abeling said.

The couple was married in June at a "beautiful wedding" in upstate New York, Abeling said. "They had everything going for them."

Vertucci, who grew up in Amsterdam, New York, was an administrative assistant at St. Mary's Healthcare in Amsterdam, Abeling said.

The vehicle was an after-market stretch limousine, according to an official briefed on the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation publicly and thus declined further identification.

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 already 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. Sen., Chuck Schumer, noted he asked 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 NHTSA data. They accounted for only one death crash out of 34,439 fatal accidents in 2016, the last year for which data is available.

Cuomo on Sunday released a statement saying, "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 ... I have directed state agencies to provide every resource necessary to aid in this investigation and determine what led to this tragedy."

Gettysburg statue with local ties get a nose job

Clio is a new woman.

Clio is a statue in Gettysburg National Park dedicated on Sept. 4, 1888, to the 123rd Washington County Regiment. And it is the only statue in the park depicting a female.

The Dr. Asa Fitch Historical Society in Salem raised more than $5,000 to repair the Washington County statue, which had been missing its granite nose since a tree branch fell on it during a windstorm.

The statue stands on a wooded knoll on Culp’s Hill.

Repairs began on Sept. 4, which, coincidentally, is the same date the statue was dedicated in 1888.

“It was almost sort of a spooky moment there,” said Judy Flagg, Salem’s deputy town historian.

Flagg traveled to Gettysburg in September to watch the repairs being made by Margaret “Mimi” Moore, who owns Moore Carver. Six other monuments in the park were also being restored. Clio was first on the list.

“It was pretty exciting being down there,” Flagg said, “and just watching the whole process was fascinating.”

During the repairs, it was discovered that Clio was also missing her stylus.

“She just had her hand up there on the tablet, but the writing implement had been lost,” Flagg said.

The money raised by the historical society covered the $3,700 nose repair as well as the additional $1,440 to replace the stylus.

After a good power-washing, Clio was standing her sacred ground by Sept. 14.

“She’s just really looking beautiful once again,” Flagg said.

Analysis: Kavanaugh fight sharpens the stakes for midterms

WASHINGTON — The bitter battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court has exacerbated the nation’s political divide and left many Americans emotionally raw. It’s also given new definition to the high stakes of November’s election.

Until now, the fight for control of Congress has largely been viewed as a referendum on President Donald Trump’s first two years in office. But the turmoil surrounding Kavanaugh has transformed the midterms into something bigger than Trump, with implications that could endure long after his presidency.

The election is suddenly layered with charged cultural questions about the scarcity of women in political power, the handling of sexual assault allegations, and shifting power dynamics that have left some white men uneasy about their place in American life.

Both parties contend the new contours of the race will energize their supporters in the election’s final stretch. Both may be right.

Republicans, however, may benefit most in the short term. Until now, party leaders, Trump included, have struggled to rev up GOP voters, even with a strong economy to campaign on. The president’s middling job approval rating and independent voters’ disdain for his constant personal attacks have been a drag on GOP candidates, particularly in the more moderate suburban districts that will determine control of the House.

But Republican operatives say internal polling now shows Kavanaugh’s acrimonious confirmation has given the party a much-needed boost, with GOP voters viewing Democrats as overzealous partisans following the public testimony by Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who accused the judge of trying to rape her while they were both in high school. Ford said she was “100 percent” certain that Kavanaugh was her attacker; Kavanaugh steadfastly denied her allegations.

The Democrats’ “strategy to capitalize on the ‘Me Too’ movement for the political purposes backfired on them,” Republican strategist Alice Stewart said. “The fact that they were willing to use Dr. Ford’s story that was uncorroborated to launch character assassinations on Judge Kavanaugh did not sit well with voters. A lot of people looked at this as a bridge too far.”

The surge in GOP enthusiasm could alter a political landscape that was tilting toward Democrats throughout the summer. Though Democrats still maintain an advantage in competitive House races, the past two weeks appear to have shifted momentum in the fight for the Senate majority back to the GOP.

In North Dakota, Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer has pulled comfortably ahead of Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who voted “no” on Kavanaugh. GOP operatives say they’re also seeing renewed Republican interest in states such as Wisconsin, where Democratic candidates for both Senate and governor have been polling strong.

“It’s turned our base on fire,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Saturday, moments after the Senate confirmed Kavanaugh.

To be sure, some tightening in the race was likely inevitable this fall. Wavering voters often move back toward their party’s candidates as Election Day nears, and most of the competitive Senate races are in states that voted for Trump by a significant margin.

With just over four weeks until Election Day, there is still time for the dynamics to shift again. And the political headwinds from the Kavanaugh confirmation are unlikely to blow in just one direction.

To Democrats, Kavanaugh’s ascent to the Supreme Court in spite of decades-old sexual misconduct allegations will only deepen the party’s pull with female voters, including independents and moderates who may have previously voted for Republicans. Democrats point to the flood of women who have spoken out about their own assaults following Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Party operatives also believe the optics of the all-male GOP panel that presided over the hearing struck a chord with female voters.

“Kavanaugh’s confirmation will leave a lot of outraged and energized women in its wake,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster.

Democrats argue that some of the same tactics that have helped energize Republican voters also motivate their base, particularly Trump’s attacks on Ford. During a campaign rally in Mississippi, the president mocked Ford for not remembering key details of the alleged attack, including the date and location of the party she says she and Kavanaugh attended 36 years ago.

“You’ve seen some shifts, but I still think that we’re in a strong place,” said New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “I still think that it gives us a lot of enthusiasm on our side because there are a lot of people out there that are really upset, not just with the testimony that came from Judge Kavanaugh but the way the president was even mocking (Ford) days ago.”

Trump remains the fall campaign’s biggest wild card. White House advisers and Republican senators are encouraging him to keep Kavanaugh in the spotlight in the campaign’s final weeks. But they’re well aware that the president often struggles to stay on message and can quickly overshadow his political victories with new controversies.

Given that, Stewart said Republicans can’t assume that this burst of momentum will sustain itself through Election Day.

“The question is whether this is the October surprise or the calm before the storm,” Stewart said.

Northeastern US seeks to prevent arrival of deer disease

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Deer biologists across northern New England are dusting off their plans for dealing with a fatal disease that has been spreading across North America for a half-century and was recently discovered again on a Canadian game farm.

Chronic wasting disease has never been found in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, and biologists hope the single case discovered in a captive deer just north of Montreal can be contained through aggressive monitoring and culling of wild deer in the area while they test to see whether the disease has infected the wild population.

“If they find it in the wild, then the freak-out factor goes through the roof because at that point, it’s only a matter of time before it spreads,” said Nick Fortin, deer biologist for the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The discovery comes as the states embark on annual fall deer hunts.

Chronic wasting disease, which always kills infected deer and related animals, is similar to mad cow disease, which affects cattle. Both diseases can contaminate forage plants and build up in soil, where they can remain for years.

It is not known to affect humans, but officials worry it could, over time, damage or destroy deer herds.

Vermont and many other states have prohibited hunters from bringing into the state deer, elk or parts of deer from areas that have reported chronic wasting disease or from captive hunt or farm facilities. Hunters can return with some processed parts of the animals. Vermont and a number of states have also banned the sale of deer urine, which is used a lure.

Since it was first recognized in captive mule deer in Colorado about 50 years ago, chronic wasting disease has slowly spread to more than two dozen states and a number of Canadian provinces. States have spent millions trying to halt that from happening.

Some feel that’s too much money to spend when little is known about the disease. Shawn Schafer, executive director of the North American Deer Farmer Association, said the organization supports many of the restrictions on the movement of deer carcasses, but he feels not enough science has been done to determine the scope of the disease.

While biologists fear that once it the disease reaches an area it could be there to stay, but a 2005 outbreak in central New York was contained quickly and it hasn’t been detected in the state since.

Patrick Martin, a wildlife biologist for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation who is in charge of the wildlife health unit, said a routine test discovered the 2005 case in a deer from a captive deer farm. A second infected animal was then found on another farm.

Wildlife officials subsequently killed about 500 deer in the area and found two more deer infected wild deer. But the aggressive approach, which cost about $1 million, appears to have worked. Since then New York has tested extensively and there have been no additional cases.

“It was a perfect storm for why it got there. It was kind of dumb luck that we able to take all the animals that were exposed,” Martin said. “The advantage was we found it early.”