Lasting Impact

Carrollton bus crash
has lingering effect 23 years later

New documentary to be made on 1988 crash
prompts memories for those who were there

“There’s never a time when people pass that sign
that they don’t think about that bus crash.
I don’t have to pass that sign to think about it.”

– Steve Meadows, retired EMT who worked the crash

By Don Ward

December 2011 Edition Cover

December 2011
Edition Cover

CARROLLTON, Ky. (December 2011) – Harold “Shorty” Tomlinson has collected many awards and photos during his long career in public service and he displays them proudly in his office atop the Carroll County Courthouse.
But there’s one item that the Judge-Executive treasures with mixed emotions – the gavel used in the December 1989 Larry Mahoney manslaughter trial.
Mahoney, then 34, was drunk when he drove his Toyota pickup truck head-on into a school bus carrying a Radcliff, Ky., church group of 67 people home from a day at King’s Island amusement park. Mahoney, who had a blood alcohol level of .24 – more than twice the legal limit at the time – was driving the wrong way on I-71 while returning to his home in Owen County around 11 p.m. The truck pinned the front door of the bus shut and the gas tank exploded into flames. Most of the 27 victims burned to death because they could not escape in time through the only exit in the back of the bus. Of those aboard the bus, 24 children and three adults died. Forty survived but 12 of them were severely burned. The crash still ranks today as the nation’s deadliest alcohol-related traffic accident.
A film company in Lexington, Ky., recently began working on a documentary about the bus crash and how it changed the lives of its victims and survivors. “Impact – After the Crash” is scheduled to be complete late next year with release in early 2013.
Mahoney, a factory worker, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 16 years in prison. A model prisoner, he served 10 years, 11 months at the La Grange, Ky., Reformatory before his release in 1999.

Read our related story "Reliving a Tragedy"

Judge Charles Satterwhite, now deceased, presided over the trial and borrowed the gavel from Tomlinson, a county magistrate at the time. The courthouse was in the process of moving to a new location across town, and many of Satterwhite’s belonging, including his gavel, were packed away. Tomlinson loaned him the gavel and that was the only time it has been used. The trial was the last one ever held in the Carroll County Courthouse. The court moved across town right after the trial.
Tomlinson pauses and chooses his words wisely when discussing his feelings about that time, about his childhood friend, Mahoney, and about the many “negative things that were said about Carroll County” in the media during the coverage of the trial.
“I’ve known Larry Mahoney all my life, and I know he would give his own life to bring just one of those kids back – he’s that kind of person,” said Tomlinson, 62. “It was a horrible thing that happened, but it happened and we all have to deal with it.”
The stings of heartbreak from the horrific bus crash and the resulting harsh criticism toward his hometown still linger in Tomlinson’s mind.
“It was a horrible thing, any way you look at it,” he says while holding the gavel and recalling those unpleasant events that still haunt Carroll County. What’s more, a green highway sign still stands to this day along rural I-71 in Carroll County marking the site of the crash.

Bus Crash Memorial

Photo courtesy of Neal Cardin of The News Enterprise

This memorial dedicated to the 27
victims and 40 survivors of the
Carrollton bus crash is located in
North Hardin Memorial Gardens
cemetery in Radcliff, Ky. The stones
list all the victims’ names. There are
no memorials in Carroll County – just
the lone I-71 green highway sign that
marks the spot of the horrific accident
that occurred there on May 14, 1988.

Soon after Tomlinson took office as Judge-Executive in 1990, one of the first things he did was ask the Kentucky State Transportation Cabinet to remove the sign. But protesters from Radcliff quickly arrived, and his request was denied.
“They showed up in a minute, so the sign stayed up,” he recalled.
Tomlinson says his attempt to remove the sign was because of his concerns for public safety. So many people were stopping their cars along the interstate to lay flowers or take photos of the sign. “Some parked on the far side of the interstate and would run across the median to take pictures,” he said. “Back then, it was common to see three or four cars parked along the side of the interstate. They still come, but not as much.”
In 2003, the state temporarily removed the sign during a project to replace signs along the entire length of I-71 in Kentucky. Some local residents lobbied to keep the sign down permanently because they said it unfairly connected Carrollton to the accident. The sign originally read “Site of Carrollton bus crash.” When the new sign went up, it was changed to, “Site of fatal bus crash.”
The incident that has become known over the years as “The Carrollton Bus Crash” is a tale of two cities, really. There’s Radcliff, which lost 27 people, mostly children, in the tragedy. And there’s Carroll County, which has suffered from guilt by association as the site of the accident.
Tomlinson laments that “whenever I go to state meetings or go on vacation somewhere and people find out where I am from, they often say, ‘Oh Carrollton – that’s where that bus crash happened.’ It’s a horrible thing to be known for.”

Carrollton Bus Crash History

After 23 years, the Carrollton, Ky., bus collision still stands today as the deadliest drunk-driving related accident in U.S. history.
About 11 p.m. on Saturday, May 14, 1988, Larry Mahoney, 34, a drunk driver in a pickup truck traveling in the wrong direction on an interstate highway in a rural, unincorporated area of Carroll County, Ky., collided head-on with a gasoline-powered former school bus which was in use as a church bus.
The initial crash was exacerbated when the gasoline from the ruptured fuel tank of the bus ignited immediately after impact, which also blocked the front loading door. Difficulties encountered by the victims attempting to evacuate the crowded bus quickly in the smoke and darkness through the only other designated exit, the rear emergency door, resulted in the death of 27 people and injured 34 of 67 passengers. Three of the four adults on board died and the other victims were under 18. Only six passengers escaped without significant injury. Mahoney also sustained minor injuries.
In the aftermath of the disaster, several positive changes occurred as a result of the tragedy. Several family members of victims became active leaders of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and one (Karolyn Nunnallee) became national president of the organization. The standards for both operation and equipment for school buses and similar buses were improved in Kentucky and many other states, notably increased emergency exits, better structural integrity, and less volatile fuel.
Lives were changed forever – from survivors and victims families in Radcliff to the many Carroll Countians who worked the scene of the crash site and the makeshift morgue set up at the Carrollton National Guard Armory to identity the bodies.
And although the accident did not even occur in Carrollton, the town has never shaken the stigma as “the site of the fatal bus crash.”

Tomlinson notes that Carroll Countians did much to help the victims’ families in the aftermath of the tragedy. Church groups prepared food for the families during the trial, and many local restaurants did not charge them for their meals. School kids held car washes to raise money for the victims’ families.
“That is part of the story that never got told much in the press at the time,” Tomlinson said. “Carroll County got beat up in the press and many ugly things were said in the heat of anger over what happened here. So I have mixed emotions about it. It was a horrific thing to happen, in every way. But there are some positive things that came out of it.”
Many state police, local fire and emergency officials who worked the accident scene, meanwhile, also were affected and some still carry their scars to this day.
Steve Meadows, 66, a retired Carroll County EMT of 25 years, is among those who cannot even talk about the tragedy without breaking down in tears. He worked the accident scene and recalls seeing kids’ tennis shoes melted to the floor mat of the bus. He recalls handling the charred bodies and helping family members to identify them.
“That date of May 14, 1988, is burned in my mind,” Meadows said. “There’s never a day that goes by that when I see a school bus pass I don’t think about that bus crash. I’ve seen how it has affected people. I’ve seen state policemen have nervous breakdowns over it. It has touched so many people in so many ways than the general public even knows.”
Meadows became personally involved with many of the victims’ families, who would often call him to talk or just cry about it over the telephone in the months afterward. “They would call me and start crying on the phone for 25-30 minutes. I would just sit there and not say anything, and then I would say. ‘Let it out.’ I would tell them that if they wanted to call and just cry that was all right. At the end of the call they would say, ‘I’m sorry.’ There were a whole lot of things that happened that people have no idea.”
Meadows attended the memorial service in Radcliff in the aftermath of the crash. A large memorial plaza was later built at North Hardin Memorial Gardens cemetery in Radcliff. The memorial lists all the names of those who died and is also dedicated to the 40 who survived.

Crash Location

Meadows also knew Mahoney personally and was troubled by the way many people tried to demonize him for his action. “I love Larry Mahoney. I knew him before this happened. He is a good individual. He made a mistake and he paid for it.”
Meadows also believes Carroll County was harshly criticized “for something that wasn’t our fault.” Yet he says he understands the anger and sorrow the incident has caused so many families. “Look at their loss; look at their burns and the mess it was. It will tear you up. And all those years – it was rough. Not just for me but for a lot of people.”
Meadows says an EMT co-worker at the time compiled several scrapbooks of articles and photos about the bus crash and gave them to him. “My wife has them stored away somewhere, but I have never once looked at them. I can’t. After working that bus crash I sure look at things a whole lot differently. I don’t take anything for granted.”
But for many years immediately after the crash, Meadows often had to relive his experiences because state officials studied the accident and discussed it at the annual three-day training courses in Richmond, Ky., that are required for EMTs to attend for re-certification. He says the focus was on ways to improve handling such emergencies in the future.

Harold Tomlinson

Photo by Don Ward

Carroll County
Harold Tomlinson
holds the gavel used
at Larry Mahoney’s
1989 trial.

As for that green highway sign out on I-71 in rural Carroll County, Meadows says, “There’s never a time when people pass that sign that they don’t think about that bus crash. I don’t have to pass that sign to think about it.”
The Carroll County Coroner in 1988 was Jimmy Dunn, who is now deceased. The current Carroll County Coroner is David Wilhoite, who was a member of the Carrollton Volunteer Fire Department at that time. But his fire station did not respond to the bus crash scene itself because there were so many other fire departments that did. Rather, he was among those who worked with his fire department’s 911 dispatch communications and was stationed at the makeshift morgue at the Armory.
Wilhoite said he knew Mahoney while growing up and says “he is a good boy, but they made him out to be a villain. Larry Mahoney is not a bad person. He just made a bad decision. Yeah, it was a terrible accident, but he served his time and took educational classes while at the reformatory. He has always worked and is working now.”
Wilhoite, 58, who works at Tandy-Eckler-Riley Funeral Home in Carrollton, said he is among those who has mixed feeling about a documentary being made about the bus crash and “would rather see the story fade away. It happened closer to English and wasn’t even in Carrollton, but ever since it happened, it has put a black cloud over Carroll County.”
Unlike so many others, it is not something that haunts him. “I think about it from time to time if people bring it up, but as far as do I go home and lay down in bed at night and think about? No, I don’t think about it any more.”

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