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Federal preliminary report on limo crash offers no cause yet

ALBANY — The National Transportation Safety Board's probe of a fatal limousine crash in upstate New York has not yet identified a cause, according to a preliminary report released Monday, after weeks of wrangling between federal inspectors and a local prosecutor over access to physical evidence.

The Oct. 6 crash in rural Schoharie killed 20 people. The NTSB said the agency continues to gather information on the modifications and mechanical condition of the 2001 Ford Excursion stretch limo, as well as oversight by the state Department of Transportation and Department of Motor Vehicles.

State police and prosecutors pursuing a criminal case against the vehicle's operator had prevented the NTSB from doing its customary inspection protocol on the vehicle until a local judge intervened two weeks ago. NTSB lawyers had said that federal inspectors were prevented from getting within 15 feet (4.5 meters) of the wreckage. Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery argued that criminal cases take precedence. A deal brokered by Judge George Bartlett on Jan. 29 gave NTSB access, with some limitations.

The limo blew through a stop sign at a T-intersection and crossed a state route into a parking lot where it struck a sport utility vehicle. The SUV struck and killed two pedestrians and the limousine crashed into an earthen embankment in a ravine, according to the report.

The report notes that after the limo was lengthened from its original 11.4-foot-long (3.5-meter-long) wheelbase by 15 feet (4.5 meters), seats with lap belts were installed. The seats were from another manufacturer and did not face forward like typical vehicle seats. The federal agency said it continues to gather information on the seat belt usage.

The increased passenger capacity required the vehicle's operations to be regulated by the state Department of Transportation, the report said.

"All aspects of the Schoharie, New York, crash remain under investigation as the NTSB focuses on determining the probable cause, with the intent of issuing safety recommendations to prevent similar crashes," the report said.

Under the agreement reached in Schoharie County Court, NTSB inspectors were to be allowed to visually inspect the limousine and take photographs before police experts removed the limo's transmission and torque converter as part of the criminal investigation.

After that, the NTSB would be cleared to perform its post-accident protocol with the exception of testing brake fluid. Instead, state police will send a report on brake fluid testing to NTSB investigators, "who have agreed not to make it public until completion of the criminal case," according to the court agreement. Agency inspectors also will be able to examine components removed from the limo "later in the criminal process," the agreement said.

Just weeks before the crash, the limo had failed a state inspection that examined such things as the chassis, suspension and brakes. Prosecutors allege the limo company's operator, Nauman Hussain, allowed an improperly licensed driver to operate an "unserviceable" vehicle. He has pleaded not guilty to criminally negligent homicide, and his lawyer has said investigators rushed to judgment.

Andre Penner, Associated Press 

A man looks at wreckage from a helicopter where it crashed into the front of a cargo truck Monday during an emergency landing on a main highway in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Brazilian television news anchor Ricardo Boechat, 66, and the pilot died in the accident. Police say the truck driver suffered only minor injuries.

Youth smoking decline stalls; vaping may be to blame

NEW YORK — Cigarette smoking rates have stopped falling among U.S. kids, and health officials believe youth vaping is responsible.

For decades, the percentage of high school and middle school students who smoked cigarettes had been declining fairly steadily. For the past three years, it has flattened, according to new numbers released Monday.

There may be several reasons, but a recent boom in vaping is the most likely explanation, said Brian King of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We were making progress, and now you have the introduction of a product that is heavily popular among youth that has completely erased that progress,” King said.

The CDC findings come from a national survey conducted last spring of more than 20,000 middle and high school students. It asked if they had used any tobacco products in the previous month. Some of the findings had been released before, including the boom in vaping.

Experts attribute the vaping increase to the exploding popularity of newer versions of e-cigarettes, like those by Juul Labs Inc. of San Francisco. The products resemble computer flash drives, can be recharged in USB ports and can be used discreetly — including in school bathrooms and even in classrooms.

According to the new CDC data, about 8 percent of high schoolers said they had recently smoked cigarettes in 2018, and about 2 percent of middle schoolers did. Those findings were about the same seen in similar surveys in 2016 and 2017.

It also found that about two in five high school students who used a vaping or tobacco product used more than one kind, and that the most common combination was e-cigarettes and cigarettes. Also, about 28 percent of high school e-cigarette users said they vaped 20 or more days in the previous month — nearly a 40 percent jump from the previous year.

Smoking, the nation’s leading cause of preventable illness, is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths each year. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration bans the sale of e-cigarettes and tobacco products to those under 18.

E-cigarettes are generally considered better than cigarettes for adults who are already addicted to nicotine. But health officials have worried for years that electronic cigarettes could lead kids to switch to smoking traditional cigarettes.

“I think the writing is on the wall,” with research increasingly suggesting e-cigarettes are becoming a gateway to regular cigarettes, said Megan Roberts, an Ohio State University researcher.

There is, however, some split of opinion among health researchers. Some had linked e-cigarettes to an unusually large drop in teen smoking a few years ago, and they say it’s not clear to what extent the decline in smoking has stalled or to what degree vaping is to blame.

Cigarette smoking is still declining in some states. And another large survey found that smoking has continued to drop among 12th graders, though not in younger school kids.

“It’s not clear yet what’s going on and it’s best to not jump to any conclusions,” said David Levy, a Georgetown University researcher.

Poll: New York voters back Albany's priorities but not leadership

Voters back Albany’s priorities

ALBANY — A new Siena College poll says New York voters support several significant proposals working their way through the state Capitol.

The survey released Monday finds that nearly 70 percent of respondents back the recently passed Child Victims Act. It would extend the statute of limitations to give molestation victims more time to sue or seek criminal charges. Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he will sign the measure.

The poll also finds majority support for new gun control measures and a law banning discrimination based on a person’s gender identity.

The survey had worse news for Cuomo. Half of respondents express unfavorable views of the Democratic governor, his worst marks since taking office.

The February 4-7 telephone survey of 778 registered voters has a margin of error of 4.3 percentage points.

NYC mayor defends Amazon deal

ALBANY — It was “mission critical” for New York City to land one of Amazon’s second headquarters and the tens of thousands of jobs the company promises to create, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday, just days after a report said the company was having second thoughts because of opposition from some influential local politicians.

De Blasio, a Democrat, told lawmakers at a state budget hearing on local government funding that the type of high-paying jobs the Amazon deal could bring to Queens are the kind the city needs to expand its technology sector. Amazon has said it would bring at least 25,000 and as many as 40,000 jobs to the Long Island City neighborhood over 10 to 15 years.

“We never had a single plan, a single agreement that brought us that many jobs,” de Blasio said during his 2½ hours of testimony.

The mayor and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year brokered the deal with Amazon, offering some $2.8 billion in city and state tax incentives and subsidies.

Today in History

On Feb. 12:

1809 — Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, was born in a log cabin in Hardin (now LaRue) County, Kentucky.

1909 — The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded.

1914 — Groundbreaking took place for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (A year later on this date, the cornerstone was laid.)

1973 — Operation Homecoming began as the first release of American prisoners of war from the Vietnam conflict took place.

1999 — The Senate voted to acquit President Bill Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice.

2000 — Charles M. Schulz, creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip, died in Santa Rosa, California at age 77.

Thought for Today: “Determine that the thing can and shall be done, and then we shall find the way.”

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)