It happened less than 20 minutes from where I lived at the time. I can still remember the smell that night into the next day. I can still see the news reports showing them moving the bus to the Amory, with most of the victims inside. It was the most traumatic thing I have ever had happen. I was about the same age as most of the victims at the time. For those of you who don't know the story, here it is:
It was the worst drunk driving crash "ever" in the U.S., killing 27 people -- all but three were children. It happened less than 20 minutes from where I lived at the time. I was about the same age as most of the victims at the time. For those of you who don't know the story, here it is:
On May 14, 1988, a youth group consisting of mostly teenagers and four adults from First Assembly of God in Radcliff, Kentucky boarded their church activity bus and headed to Kings Island theme park (north of Cincinnati, Ohio, about 170 miles from Radcliff). The group included church members and their invited guests. As everyone arrived early that Saturday morning, those wanting to go on the trip had grown to more than originally anticipated. The church's principal pastor (who stayed behind) restricted the ridership to the legal limit of 66 persons plus the driver.
The church bus was a conventional type body-on-chassis school bus model. The 1977 Ford B-700 school bus chassis was equipped with a Superior school bus body, a model with 11 rows of 39 in. wide seats on either side of a central aisle 12 in. wide. The bus was ordered by the Kentucky Department of Schools in 1976, as part of an order of over 600 units for districts throughout the state. The chassis was manufactured at Ford's expansive Kentucky Truck Plant located outside Louisville and then was shipped to Lima, Ohio, where the body was installed at Sheller Globe Corporation's Superior Coach Company. It was certified as a school bus with an effective build date of March 23, 1977, which is when the chassis began production, as required by federal regulations. Both the vehicle, defined as a school bus, and the build date were important legal distinctions. March 23 was just nine days before fuel tank guard frames and greater access to emergency exits and a number of other improved safety standards were required by revised federal regulations on all school buses built for use in the U.S. with beginning production dates on or after April 1, 1977. The completed bus was delivered in time for use during the 1977-78 school year, and served ten years. The church acquired the used school bus as surplus from the Meade County, Kentucky School District, and it had been owned by the church for about one year. The bus had successfully made the same round-trip to King's Island in July, 1987, was used daily for short local moves on school days, and had made several other long trips. It was checked over regularly by mechanically-inclined church members, including a civilian motor pool supervisor from nearby Fort Knox. Two new tires of a good commercial quality had been installed a week before the ill-fated trip, and front end suspension and steering parts examined at that time. From all indications, the bus was in good condition mechanically on May 14, 1988.
On the trip, the bus was driven by John Pearman, a part-time associate pastor of the church who was a local court clerk. The group left the church early that morning and traveled uneventfully to the park. They spent the whole day and early evening at Kings Island, then boarded the bus and began traveling out of Ohio and back into Northern Kentucky toward Radcliff. After about an hour, they stopped to fill the 60-gallon fuel tank with gasoline, then resumed the trip southward.
Just before 11:00 p.m., while heading south on Interstate 71 outside of Carrollton, Kentucky, the bus collided almost head-on with a black Toyota pickup truck which was traveling the wrong way (north in the southbound lanes) at a high speed on a curved stretch of the highway. The small truck was driven by Larry Wayne Mahoney, a 34 year-old factory worker who was intoxicated. The right front of the pickup truck hit the right front of the bus, breaking off the bus's suspension and driving the leaf spring backward into the gas tank mounted behind an exterior panel but outside the heavier frame, just behind the step well for the front door rendering the door inoperable. Leaking gasoline from the punctured tank quickly caught fire. As the seat covers and the highly flammable polyurethane foam padding ignited, the temperature inside the bus rose to an estimated 2,000 degrees and a thick cloud of noxious smoke enveloped the area from the ceiling down to seat level within a minute or two.
Nobody aboard the bus was seriously injured by the actual collision. However, the primary front loading door of the bus was jammed shut by impact damage and blocked by the fire which began immediately thereafter. Almost all of the occupants of the bus began trying to exit through the single rear emergency door. Exceptions were the driver, one chaperone who was said by many survivors to have tried to douse the flames with the bus' fire extinguisher, and another chaperone, a small-bodied woman who managed to squeeze out a 9 in. x 24 in. window opening on the left side immediately adjacent to her seating position near the front. Of the four adults aboard the bus, she was the only survivor. Attempts by some of the other passengers to break or kick out any of the split-sash type side windows were unsuccessful. According to the NTSB investigation, more than 60 persons trying to reach the only available exit—the rear emergency door—created a crush of bodies in the 12 in. aisle. Many passengers found themselves unable to move. A beverage cooler which had been earlier placed in the aisle near row 10 (of 11 rows of seats) further exacerbated this problem. Passersby and some of the escaped passengers helped to extract immobilized children through the rear door, and help them to ground level about 3 ft below. However, fire soon engulfed the entire interior of the bus, trapping the 27 people remaining aboard. At that point, no more passengers were accessible from outside the bus. Emergency vehicles had not yet arrived.
After fire, rescue, and police authorities responded to the scene, treated and transported survivors, and extinguished the fire, a crane was used to load the bus onto a flatbed truck that transported the bus and those persons killed to the National Guard Armory in Carrollton. There, emergency crews went through the interior of the bus seat by seat to find and remove bodies. Many bodies were found facing the only exit, the rear door. The coroner later determined that none of the bus occupants suffered broken bones or mortal injuries from the crash impact; all had died from the fire and smoke.
Among the bus survivors, one person's leg from just below the knee had to be amputated, and about ten others suffered disfiguring burns. Only 6 bus passengers were uninjured and virtually all suffered varied degrees of emotional trauma and survivor guilt syndrome. When authorities were able to tally the counts from the various hospitals and the bodies aboard the bus, and autopsies had been conducted, it was determined that 27 persons had been killed by the fire, and another 34 aboard the bus injured, as well as the truck driver who was also injured. As of November 2006, this collision had the highest death and injury toll of any school bus crash in United States history.
The Drunk Driver
Larry Mahoney was a repeat drunk-driving offender. He survived, sustaining only minor injuries. His blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was .24 percent — substantially more than the 1988 Kentucky legal limit of .10. Mahoney had no memory of the crash and learned of the collision after waking in the hospital the next day. He was sentenced to imprisonment for 16 years after a jury of the Carroll Circuit Court, under Indictment No. 88-CR-27, convicted him of 27 counts of manslaughter in the second degree, 16 counts of assault in the second degree, 27 counts of wanton endangerment in the first degree, and one count of driving while under the influence of intoxicants. On appeal, in Case No. 1988-CA-1635, Judge Anthony M. Wilhoit of the Kentucky Court of Appeals reversed Mahoney's conviction for drunk driving on the grounds that it constituted double jeopardy under the Kentucky Constitution, ruling that the 27 counts of manslaughter in the second degree subsumed the drunk driving conviction. The court ruled that, under Kentucky law, the elements of drunk driving were substantially similar to those of manslaughter. This was a somewhat ironic result because it meant that Mahoney's driver's license could be reinstated, even during his imprisonment. The Kentucky Supreme Court subsequently reversed this line of reasoning in another case. On May 6, 1992, the Kentucky Supreme Court denied review of Mahoney's appeal in Case No. 1992-SC-98. At the Kentucky State Reformatory, Mahoney worked in the medium-security facility as a janitor. He earned his GED high school equivalency diploma and participated in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous programs. Described by authorities as a model prisoner, Mahoney reduced his incarceration by six years with good behavior, known under Kentucky law as "good time" credit. He declined the Kentucky Parole Board's parole recommendation and served out his sentence, before leaving the prison in La Grange, on September 1, 1999, having served 10 years and 11 months. Local television stations broadcast video of him walking out of the prison.
This is part of an interview with one of the survivors that was on a local TV station this week to mark the 20th anniversary of the crash:
As the 20th anniversary of the Carroll county bus crash approaches, the last victim pulled from the burning wreckage speaks out for the first time.
"Just a bunch of screaming, just a bunch of screaming and get out I remember get out. They were just beating on me they were just beating on me I was yelling what are you doing I was on fire and they were trying to pat me out. I looked and when they were putting the fire out I actually seen an arm fall back into the bus," said Ciaran Madden.
"It was crowded, very crowded we were sitting on top of each other," said Madden.
The Radcliff youth group was headed to Kings Island. Ciaran was 13, she had just moved to Kentucky from Arkansas and became friends with a girl named Emillie.
"Right before we were getting ready to leave I picked up a penny, I found a penny and Emillie said hey look you know find a penny pick it up all day you'll have good luck," said Madden.
Luck was with Ciaran that night, she survived the deadly crash, but her friend Emillie did not. "I remember I kept saying where's Emillie where's Emillie."
Ciaran carries around many reminders of what happened to her. "I am burned on my face, my neck, my upper back, my right arm, my left arm."
Ciaran says 20 years after the crash and she still has tough days, but she's managed to find forgiveness.
She began writing letters to Larry Mahoney in 1994.
"I want to thank you for not hateing me and for having me for a friend," Ciaran read, "Talk to you later your friend always Larry Mahoney."
Ciaran even went to prison to visit Mahoney.
"When he gave me a hug he just kind of melted and his eyes got real red and he just started to cry and I liked that I liked that he was crying that made me feel great," said Madden.
Ciaran says she forgave Mahoney. He was released in 1999 after serving nearly 10 years for manslaughter.
"He was a guy that made a mistake a big mistake and he lived for it." But this was a mistake many people didn't want to happen again. The crash spurred change to the way school buses were made across the country.
Among the changes: Flame retardant seats, emergency push out windows, roof hatches and a left side emergency exit. All buses were engineered to use diseal instead of gasoline and manufactures began securing fuel tanks to prevent a puncture like the one that happened to the gas tank on bus 75.
"I'm a victim of a drunk driver, not a bus crash," said Madden.