SCHOHARIE, NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - It was supposed to be a surprise.
Mr Axel Steenburg had been planning a birthday party for his wife, Amy, for a while. But the ever excitable Mr Steenburg was notoriously bad at keeping secrets and, somehow, she found out.
"He would try to hide it from you and then you would see him biting his cheek. It was so obvious," his mother, Ms Janet Steenburg, said. "And then he would say, 'You're not going to believe what I have for you.'"
Mr Steenburg coordinated a passel of friends through a group chat, arranging for a tour and tasting at a popular upstate brewery and renting a party bus to make sure that anyone drinking would not be driving.
He even set aside two spare bedrooms in his home in Amsterdam, New York, a small city northwest of Albany, in case someone was not sober enough to drive home.
But the bus broke down before picking them up, so he booked whatever he could find at the last-minute: a white stretch limousine.
It fit 18. They were 17. That would do.
Behind the wheel of the 2001 limousine was a husband holding down a part-time job as a driver for a company whose vehicles made him worry for his safety.
About 40km to the south, a professor and his father-in-law were out celebrating a family wedding and pulled over at a roadside country store to take a break from driving.
All 20 would soon be dead.
Their lives were cut short in a violent limousine crash in Schoharie, New York, this month, that has left in its wake a collection of mourning families, a clutch of young orphans and state and federal officials trying to piece together what went wrong.
On Wednesday (Oct 10), the operator of the limousine company, Nauman Hussain, was arrested by the State Police and charged with criminally negligent homicide as a result of renting out a vehicle - a hulking 2001 Ford Excursion - even though it had repeatedly failed inspections, including of its brakes, and had been deemed not road worthy by state officials.
Hussain, 28, pleaded not guilty. Just 16km away, hundreds of people filled a gymnasium in Schoharie to mourn the dead and families throughout the area planned funerals.
The toll of the crash has been particularly acute because of the connection between the 17 young people - all 24 to 34 years' old - who had climbed into the limousine, bound for a Finger Lakes brewery, Ommegang, a popular attraction known for its bands and its beer.
They were a tight-knit gang of friends and family: Among them were four sisters, two brothers and two sets of newlyweds.
They hung out regularly, gathering for game nights on Saturdays at Mr Axel and Ms Amy Steenburg's home on a peaceful street overlooking a reservoir in Amsterdam, a Mohawk River city about 40km north of the crash site. Ms Steenburg would have turned 30 on Wednesday.
Why the limousine ended up at that spot - speeding down a hill just over a kilometre-long, across a busy highway, clipping a parked car and hitting two pedestrians before careening into an overgrown creek bed - is one of many mysteries.
The brewery was far to the west of the crash site.
Whatever the reason, it was at that intersection that the lives of the limousine's passengers, its driver and the two pedestrians collided, a random convergence that resulted in the country's worst transportation-related accident in nearly a decade.
A LAST-MINUTE CHANGE OF PLAN
That Mr Axel Steenburg would take charge of planning his wife's birthday was no surprise, according to a neighbour, Ms Missy Davison, who had watched with sweet awe as the young Steenburg couple had nested in the modest two-story home on Pleasant Avenue, next to Bunn Creek.
"They were so ambitious and so in love," said Ms Davison, who recalled the young couple moving in two years ago and immediately helping neighbours with errands. "They were going places."
The couple had married over the summer and their social set was guided by blood - Mr Steenburg's brother, Rich, was also a close friend, and Amy had three sisters in the area - and the type of life's misadventures that bond young people.
Ms Davison remembers a group of Mr Steenburg's friends trying mightily to hoist a king-size mattress through a second-floor window. (They succeeded, eventually.)
There were also quiet evenings watching deer and wild turkeys in a fenced area around the reservoir across from their home.
On Saturday, the plan was for guests to meet at the couple's house and take a party bus from there.
But at some point that day, Mr Steenburg received word that the bus had broken down, so he scrambled to find an alternative. He ended up booking a ride from a business called Prestige Limousine, which operated out of a budget motel in Wilton, New York. It was run by Hussain.
When the replacement vehicle showed up, it was a disappointment: a ragged stretch limousine, an SUV on steroids, so dismal that its owner didn't care if people smoked in the back.
Ms Davison remembers the limousine idling in front of the Steenburg's house shortly before 1.30pm, about a half an hour before the accident.
"I thought it was a wedding," Ms Davison said. "I didn't get a chance to ask."
The limousine driver's name was Mr Scott Lisinicchia. He lived in a quiet wooded neighbourhood south of the resort town of Lake George, New York.
Mr Lisinicchia, 53, had suffered both tragedies and self-inflicted wounds: his brother, Anthony, had died in 2017, at 42; Mr Lisinicchia had had two drug-related arrests, making his own life more difficult.
The job driving for Prestige was part-time, and perilous, according to his wife, Kim, who told CBS News that he worried about the safety of its fleet.
"There were a few times where he told me, like I overheard him say, 'I'm not going to drive this, like this, you need to give me another car,'" Ms Lisinicchia told CBS.
State officials have said that Mr Lisinicchia did not have the proper licence to drive the limousine involved in the crash.
But Ms Lisinicchia disputed that he was unqualified, saying he had driven tractor-trailers.
"Even if he didn't have the proper license," she said, "this still would've happened."
BEFORE THE CRASH, THE HOUGH FAMILY'S 'BEST DAY EVER'
Mr Brian Hough dug rocks. An assistant professor of geology at the State University of New York at Oswego, Mr Hough, 46, taught courses about all things archaeological - stratigraphy, geology and paleontology - but also liked getting outdoors: hiking, biking, and yes, rock climbing.
"This past summer was a great one for his family," his mother, Mrs Artra Hough, said. "He and his wife and son went to the Grand Canyon and other national parks out in the West. They were climbing on rocks, going down into the canyon - all the things you do at Yellowstone."
He also had a way with children, according to his brother, Mr J.T. Hough. In August, Mr J.T. Hough had visited his older brother's home in Moravia, New York, near Syracuse, and Mr Brian Hough had taken the family to the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York.
"My kids, they all loved their Uncle Brian," Mr Hough said. "He was one of the best uncles you could ever possibly imagine - always the goof ball, wrestling with his nieces and nephews, pretending to be Frankenstein, a real kid at heart."
During that trip, Mr Brian Hough mentioned a family wedding coming up in October, his wife's cousin getting married nearby.
So on that Saturday, Mr Hough, his wife, Ms Jaclyn Schnurr, and their eight-year-old son, Ben, along with other relatives, were caravaning in several cars; Mr J.T Hough said Ms Schnurr told him that the family "was having the best day ever".
Just before 2pm, the group decided "to stop and stretch their legs and maybe get something to eat", said Mr Hough's mother.
They parked near the Apple Barrel Country Store, which was bustling with visitors who had flocked upstate for its scenic fall foliage and apple-picking.
The red-roof country store sits at the intersection of Route 30 and Route 30A, a T-shaped junction that had long unnerved residents as a frightening stretch to navigate.
Route 30 is downhill as it veers toward Route 30A, a busy byway that runs east to west. There is nothing but a stop sign to slow down motorists.
Ms Schnurr's brother took Ben into the store. Mr Hough lingered near the car with his father-in-law, James Schnurr, 70. Ms Schnurr was standing nearby.
Up the hill, a white limousine began its descent.
GROWING APPREHENSION INSIDE THE LIMO
When the 17 friends began piling into the limousine and cramming into its tan leather seats under its mirrored roof, they never fathomed that the sunny afternoon would be their last.
Just the night before, Mr Rich Steenburg had gotten together with friends in his trailer home for a Friday night ritual - eating pizza and playing Dungeons and Dragons.
His wife, Kim, had planned on going to the outing on Saturday, but stayed behind after falling ill while babysitting her niece. The couple had recently been approved for a house and were closing the deal next month.
"Rich was so in love with the house," his mother said. "When he found out they got approved, they were so ecstatic."
The day before the crash, Mr Patrick Cushing, who played for Team USA dodge ball, and his girlfriend Amanda Halse, a waitress at a restaurant in a senior living community, had watched the Red Sox beat their beloved Yankees in the playoffs.
They had been looking forward to the post-season rivalry - and the trip on Saturday, too, his father, Mr Kevin Cushing, said.
"Both my son Patrick and his girlfriend Amanda took every day as an opportunity for an adventure," he said.
Ms Rachael Cavosie and Ms Amanda Rivenburg, friends of the group, were also in the limousine.
Mr Matthew Coons, who had competed in fitness competitions with Mr Axel Steenburg, had joined and brought his girlfriend, Ms Savannah Bursese, who was saving up money to pursue a law degree in Texas.
Ms Amy Steenburg's inseparable sisters - Ms Mary Dyson, Ms Abigail Jackson and Ms Allison King - were also in the car, along with two of their spouses, Mr Robert Dyson and Mr Adam Jackson.
Ms King, however, wasn't as enthusiastic about the celebration. She had been abstaining from drinking to support her fiancé's decision to give up alcohol, her mother, Mrs Linda King, said.
"Allison wasn't crazy about going," said Mrs King, who saw her daughter for the last time that Friday afternoon when she dropped off a dozen eggs from her chicken coop.
And Mr Michael Ukaj, the quiet one of the group, was also in the limousine - coincidentally, it was his 34th birthday.
An avid collector of arcade games, Mr Ukaj had spent part of the previous night playing on a pinball machine he had bought for himself as a birthday present.
Mr Ukaj, a former Marine, had driven down from the forested foothills of Adirondack State Park in Caroga Lake, where he lived alone in a house that he had inherited from his grandmother and was fixing up.
"One thing that Mike was is responsible," his brother, Mr Jeremy Ashton, said. "He would always throw in the caveat that if you're going to drive, don't drink. If you're going to drink, don't drive."
So they didn't.
Yet they knew nothing about the limo's failed inspections or about its owner, a man with a checkered history, including a past life as a government informant.
They had no way of knowing that the Ford Excursion had been listed for sale on Craigslist for US$9,000 (S$124,011) just two days before.
The listing read, "Dot Ready full serviced," referring to the Department of Transportation.
But they swiftly found reasons for apprehension as the limousine rattled south from Amsterdam, past the beat-up barns along the winding curves of Route 30.
Ms Erin McGowan, who was there with her new husband, Mr Shane McGowan, texted her best friend at 1.37pm, about 18 minutes before the crash.
The texts were jocular, but in retrospect eerie. It was no "luxury limo" and it was making a racket, she wrote.
"The motor is making everyone deaf," wrote Ms McGowan, adding five emojis of a grinning face shedding tears from laughing so hard.
"When we get to brewery we will all b deaf."
Minutes passed and some of the messages sent from the limousine only grew more ominous.
At 1.40pm, 15 minutes before the crash, Ms Allison King texted her fiancé.
"She said the brakes were burning and they were coasting," her mother said.
Four minutes before the fatal accident, Ms Jackson texted her mother-in-law who was taking care of her daughters, Archer, 4, and Elle, 16 months.
"She was checking to see how the girls were doing," according to her mother.
The stretch of road heading toward the site of the accident is an unbroken, decline over a kilometre-long from the top of a ridge north of Schoharie.
A family farm sits at the crest, with a pond and a paddle boat. Signs warn about its steepness and no trucks are allowed. About halfway down, the road narrows and curves.
Travelling down might take a minute at the posted speed limit: 88km per hour. But it is easy to pick up speed - brake lights are on for most drivers going down the hill.
There's a final turn where the Apple Barrel comes into sight, a steady line of traffic on Route 30A going east and west. There is an oversize stop sign, to help prevent accidents.
But on that day, the limousine never stopped.
WAITING FOR NEWS
Sometime after 2pm, Mrs Linda King saw a breaking news message on her Facebook feed about the limousine accident.
"But they said the limo was carrying a wedding party so we weren't immediately concerned," her husband, Mr Tom King, said.
Hours later, investigators flooded the quiet residential street where Mr Axel and Ms Amy Steenburg lived.
Under moonlight, they tried to match the licence plates of the many cars outside their home with the victims killed inside the limousine that lay ravaged in a ravine, some 40km away.
Inside the couple's white clapboard home, Lady, their Bull mastiff, waited for her owners.
Two gifts sat on the kitchen counter. They were Mr Steenburg's last unspoiled surprises: two bottles of Amy's favourite wine and a birthday card, all strategically positioned so they would have been the first things Amy saw when they returned to the house that night.
The unopened bottles are still there.