has lingering effect 23 years later
documentary to be made on 1988 crash
prompts memories for those who were there
never a time when people pass that sign
that they dont think about that bus crash.
I dont have to pass that sign to think about it.
Steve Meadows, retired EMT who worked the crash
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 theres one item that the Judge-Executive treasures with mixed
emotions the gavel used in the December 1989 Larry Mahoney
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 Kings 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 nations 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.
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 Satterwhites 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.
Ive known Larry Mahoney all my life, and I know he would
give his own life to bring just one of those kids back hes
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 Tomlinsons
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. Whats more, a green highway sign still stands
to this day along rural I-71 in Carroll County marking the site of the
courtesy of Neal Cardin of The News Enterprise
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. Theres Radcliff,
which lost 27 people, mostly children, in the tragedy. And theres
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 thats where that bus crash happened.
Its a horrible thing to be known for.
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
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. Theres never a day that goes by that when I see a
school bus pass I dont think about that bus crash. Ive seen
how it has affected people. Ive 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, Im 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.
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 wasnt 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 cant. After working that bus crash I sure look at things
a whole lot differently. I dont 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.
by Don Ward
holds the gavel used
at Larry Mahoneys
As for that green highway sign out on I-71 in rural Carroll
County, Meadows says, Theres never a time when people pass
that sign that they dont think about that bus crash. I dont
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 departments 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 wasnt 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 dont
think about it any more.
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