Wednesday, May 14, 2008

the Carrollton bus crash

From Chris Kenning in the C-J with an account of the Carrollton bus crash 20 years ago today...

It's a good article on staggeringly depressing topic, but I thought the C-J would do something huge-- perhaps a "where are they now" on a lot of the survivors or some way of laying out the impact on those who died. But maybe it's all too gruesome...

Two good friends of mine have connections to the tragedy-- one whose cousin survived and one whose sister died. Brutal...

On May 14, 1988, after a day of riding roller coasters at Kings Island near Cincinnati, 63 chattering children and four chaperones packed into a church bus for a 9 p.m. trip back to Radcliff, Ky.

The children joked and laughed, surrounded by drink coolers, stuffed animals and balloons. After a stop to fill the bus's 60-gallon gas tank, 13-year-old Ciaran Foren dozed off on the drive through Interstate 71's darkened, forested hillsides.

At 10:55 p.m., just outside Carrollton, the bus's headlights illuminated an oncoming black pickup — a drunken driver going the wrong way. It smashed into the bus, puncturing the fuel tank and crushing its main door. The bus skidded to a halt, and in seconds the gasoline ignited.

As the fire spread to the bus seats, filling the interior with toxic fumes, passengers searched for the only remaining exit.

"All I heard was, `Get out! Get out! Get out!'" said Ciaran, whose last name is now Madden. "But there were too many people trying to get out the only exit."

Twenty-seven people were killed that night in what remains the worst drunken-driving accident in U.S. history.

Survivors and victims' families who will gather tonight for a vigil at a memorial near Radcliff say they are still haunted by the crash, bearing lifelong emotional and physical scars.

And while the crash prompted tougher drunken-driving laws and major improvements in bus safety in Kentucky and across the nation, the survivors say more needs to be done to curb drinking and driving.

"I hope bringing the story back out will wake up some people," said Madden, who now lives in Rineyville.

The collision

It was a promising May morning in Radcliff when the Rev. Don Tennison ushered children from Radcliff First Assembly of God church onto a bus for the youth group's annual Kings Island "Spring Fling" trip.

The group included many invited friends from the small town near Fort Knox. Tennison quieted the children for a prayer on the retired 1977 Meade County school bus that had served the church well.

Among the children was 10-year-old Patty Nunnallee, who had been invited by a friend. She was excited, never having been to the amusement park. Her mother, Karolyn Nunnallee, recalled how her concern about the trip was calmed when she learned how Patty would be traveling.

"I thought, `Well, what could be safer than a bus?'" she said.

The group made the 170-mile trip and spent the day riding The Beast and ascending to the top of a replica Eiffel Tower. On the drive home, the bus windows were shut — keeping children wet from water rides warm.

About 10:30 p.m., other drivers flashed their lights at a black pickup traveling north in the southbound lanes of I-71. Inside was Larry Mahoney, a factory worker from Owen County who was driving with a blood-alcohol level later determined to be .24 — more than twice the legal limit at the time.

Twenty-five minutes later, Mahoney's pickup crashed into the right-front side of the bus, sending its stunned occupants tumbling.

At first, it seemed they were OK. But then a fire broke out in the stairwell, right above the smashed gas tank. Driver John Pearman, who was fatally injured, yelled for children to get out. In seconds, youth pastor Chuck Kytta caught fire, falling to the floor near the front exit. He also died. The rear emergency exit, the only way out, quickly became jammed with bodies as the bus filled with black smoke. A cooler placed in the aisle near the back was also impeding traffic, and attempts to kick out windows failed.

Those who got out found traffic stopped in both directions, truckers jumping out to help, and survivors stumbling in a daze, said one of them, Allen Tennison, the pastor's son, who was interviewed from his new home in California.

Jason Booher, who was 13 at the time, recalled pulling others, many badly burned, through the back door. It was only minutes before the inferno grew too hot to rescue the ghostly figures barely visible inside.

Autopsy reports later showed that Patty Nunnallee was among the last to die, and witnesses reported that the last voice they heard was a little girl's, calling, "Mommy, help me," said Nunnallee, who believes it was her daughter.

"I can't think of any death worse than the way she died," she said.

The aftermath

On the night of May 14, Carroll County Coroner James Dunn was relaxing at home after a Saturday shopping trip, hoping his phone would stay quiet.

Shortly after 11 p.m., it rang. There was a highway accident, he was told. When he arrived, the scene was crowded with fire trucks and ambulances. Inside the bus was a ghastly sight.

"It was a nightmare. I couldn't believe what I was seeing," he said. "People were burned and dead."

At the same time, Radcliff parents were jumping into cars to rush to Carrollton, where Dunn set up a morgue in a National Guard armory. Families were sent to a nearby Holiday Inn to wait for updates.

Although some bodies were burned beyond recognition, "we were able to get dental records," Dunn said. "And we had people talking to families, to say what they were wearing."

The horror sank in slowly for some. Madden, fighting for her life after she was taken out of a coma that had been drug-induced because of severe burns, wasn't told of the death toll for a month.

The aftermath in Radcliff was grim. Church members found themselves going to one funeral after another. Booher went to 27 funerals, he said, sending him into a deep despair. Parents, including Nunnallee, felt numb.

"I can remember a couple of weeks after the crash, just sitting in my house, just terribly depressed, thinking, `How am I going to go on?'" she recalled.

Changes result

Although a drunken driver caused the accident, authorities found that the bus's lack of alternate exits and toxic smoke from the burning seat covers contributed to the death toll.

In 1977, the federal government began requiring all new school buses to enclose gas tanks in metal cages. But the church's bus had been built just before that.

The crash and resulting litigation, including a lawsuit Nunnallee and another family filed against Ford, the maker of the bus chassis, helped prompt several safety improvements.

Kentucky began requiring emergency push-out windows, flame-retardant seats, diesel engines, emergency roof hatches and side emergency doors.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration eventually added emergency exit requirements for school buses manufactured after September 1994. That included requiring more doors and a hold-open device on emergency doors.

Nunnallee went on to become the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, pushing for stricter drunken-driving laws. Although the blood-alcohol limit was .10 in 1988, in 1991 Kentucky stopped allowing defendants to argue they weren't impaired at that level, then lowered the limit in 2000 to .08.

The state also stiffened penalties for repeat offenders, standardized training for officers and courts, increased the length of license suspensions for drunken-driving convictions and increased penalties for drunken drivers going the wrong way on a highway, said Capt. Tim Lucas of the Kentucky State Police.

MADD's goal was to cut the proportion of alcohol-related traffic deaths to less than 40 percent by 2000. Kentucky reached that in 1993. Last year Kentucky's rate reached 24 percent, second-best in the nation.

"It was a universal wake-up call ... but there are still far too many fatalities," said Angela Criswell, director of Kentucky's MADD, which is still pushing for stricter laws, such as requiring breath-testing ignition devices for first-time DUI offenders.

Driver lives in obscurity

Larry Mahoney, the pickup's driver that night 20 years ago, still lives in rural Owen County, not far from the site of the crash, near his parents' house on a remote road dotted with mobile homes and old barns.

Sentenced to 16 years in prison, he was released in 1999, his sentenced shortened because of good behavior. He married and has worked at a factory job at least part time while living in obscurity, according to those who know him.

He has never spoken publicly about the crash and has no plans to, according to friends and family.

"It's been 20 years," said Mahoney's mother, Mary, who answered the door at their home last week. "Just leave it alone."

Owen County Judge-Executive Billy O'Banion, who knows Mahoney, said he is a "model citizen" who seems to be accepted by residents.

"He's a man who understands the mistake he made and lives with it," he said. "He doesn't do anything to stand out. ... All he asks for is privacy."

Madden attended Mahoney's trial and remembered how little emotion he showed. Curious, she wrote him a letter telling him she forgave him. The two struck up a correspondence, and she visited him in prison.

"The more I learned, the more I knew he was just a man. He didn't wake up saying, `I'm going to drink a lot and plunge into this bus and kill 27 people,'" she said. "He was just a man that made a very bad decision."

Pain lingers

Tennison, now 35, said he still struggles with survivor's guilt. His seatmate that night was Madden, who was badly burned, while he escaped relatively unharmed.

"Could I have done something different before I got out?" he said he asked himself. "What if I had reached over here or there?"

Each year, his family celebrates Christmas with Lee Williams, a Radcliff First Assembly of God pastor who lost his wife and two daughters in the crash. After the crash, Williams married the widow of Pearman, the bus driver. Several pairs of survivors also eventually married, bonded by the trauma.

Booher, who lost his best friend, is now an assistant principal at Shelby Valley High School in Pikeville, Ky. He often speaks to students about the dangers of drinking and driving. He said he has kept a vow never to taste alcohol.

After a years-long journey of reconstructive surgeries, morphine and pain, Madden is married with children. And Nunnallee lives in Florida, still working with MADD and helping victims of drunken drivers.

Most families touched by the accident wish to put it behind them, she said, but the reality is, "it's never over."


At August 20, 2008 at 3:31 PM , Blogger Kristie said...

Hello, I am glad that someone remembered to remember these folks.
The survivors are the ones that must have suffered for along time.
I grew up knowing alot of friends of Friends that were in this crash or had love ones to die in it.
I was a Junior in HS when this happened and I lived in a county south of Hardin Cou.
called Taylor. CAN you post a list of surviors?
I would like to see if anyone of them I know now.
you can send it to me personally at
Thanks a bunch.
Kristie DuSharm (Hayes)

At September 15, 2008 at 6:48 PM , Blogger pauline said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At September 15, 2008 at 7:00 PM , Blogger pauline said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At December 9, 2008 at 12:24 PM , Blogger Abcdefg said...

I am trying to locate a good friend of mine from camp who is a survivor of the bus crash. His name is Scott Howard please anyone with his contact info please contact me at Thank you . Abigail Billings

At February 24, 2009 at 9:49 PM , Blogger Rob41 said...

I remember this bad accident this is one of the worst Ive ever seen well for starters he NO business behind the wheel what he did was a root of all evil In fact I was in Ky went down interstate 71 & saw the signs posted on both sides I sure hope that sevres as a wake call to anyone who choses to make a unwise choice leta lone very dangerus risk bad call this was stupid well one thing is for sure after seeing this I wont ever drink & drive Ive got to munch at stake its real shame

At April 4, 2009 at 11:33 PM , Blogger MrsShady said...

As a life-long resident of Carroll County it saddens me to know that the only way people know our town is by the bus crash. The bus crash however was not in Carrollton it was in Carroll County. It seems that 20 years later we are still getting the blame for one person's actions. We are just as sadden as the rest so please remember it was The Carroll County Bus Crash and not the Carrollton Bus Crash. Not all of us people in Carroll County are people who drive drunk.

At July 5, 2009 at 12:17 AM , Blogger ChasEasland said...

My family , & i, grew up in radcliff. My mom & dad were friends with alot of the people who died. They went to north hardin. My dad said, when he went into the step class the following day, mostly all of the class was gone. Like a ghost town. I went to the memorial today, & saw how many people were there and who suffered all of that, & it really made me think. The new movie, the phoenix story, is way too over due. My dad was friends with Harold Dennis, but Jesus, it's truely sad.

At January 5, 2010 at 10:46 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

I grew up in Radcliff, went to the elementary school, the middle school and on to North Hardin. I grew up with most of the people on that bus. I road the bus with some to school in the mornings, I had class with a few, and I played on the playground with some of them. I remember these people every day of my life. I remember the morning of the accident, coming down the stairs and hearing about it on tv. I remember going to school that Monday being devastated by the loss, and horrified at the news "vultures" that were in the middle school cafeteria. It was our last year there at RMS you see, we were all looking forward to going to North Hardin. I remember not having class for about a week because no one could do anything but sit or walk around and cry. I cant wait to see the movie, if I can ever find out when and where it will be playing. This is a testament not only to Harold, but to all those lives that should have been. Thanks for reading this.

At May 17, 2010 at 7:21 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

I remember this accident very well. I went to that church as well when I was 11-12 years old. My parents had decided to move to FL a year before this happened but was friends with almost everyone on that bus. I heard about the accident the very following day when my mother came to the school and pulled me out and told me about what ha happened. I freaked out because I was also told at the same time my best friend that was on that bus was MIA. No one knew where she was at at the time I found out. I had sisters living in Radliff and Fort Knox that was keeping me updated. I wish I could get in touch with my friend now. Over the years we have lost touch and now would like to find her again. Her name then was Katrina Mueller. She may be married now. if anyone knows where she is or is able to reach please contact me at My name is Marilyn. Thank You and GOD BLESS to all that was involved...victims, survivors and loved ones!!!

At May 29, 2010 at 11:49 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

I was a 14 yr old who was at the crash scene.our family pulled up shortly after impact and we stayed until all the survivors were taken off to the hospitals helping the kids who were badly burned.i stayed with a girl named Karrie until the ambulance carried her away.i know she lived through it but i could not locate her after she left the hospital. i would love to see how she's will always be a traumatic memory for me,but i know we all share a timelly bond.any help or info with this is a blessing.robert underwood at

At January 25, 2011 at 12:20 AM , Blogger AJ said...

Wow... I'm 14 years old, I go to church, and very Summer we have a camp. This scares me a lot because we also use a "retired" school bus and it was only a few months ago that its windows were repaired. Tonight I was just looking up Ford cars plain and simple, and then I noticed they had a connection to some kind of super luxurious tour bus manufacturer. I Google'd them and found out one of the buses they made was involved in this tragedy... Soon I texted/IM'd my friends about it and we were all horrified. What makes this feel scarier to me is how much detail was put into the story such as closing the windows to keep water ride riders warm. I'm not trying to be disrespectful, but I think if they had the water ride riders take off their wet clothes to throw at the fire or even the contents of the cooler, it may habe suffocated it if you think about it. I despise it when drivers know 100% that they are making a bad decision and do it. I do think this story has strengthened others' faith in Jesus (I really hope all who died went to Heaven). God even forgives the drunk driver who caused the crash, and if he decides to accept what God is offering him, he will feel so much better. Benefits do come from tragic events like this too. Because of it, drunk driving has been seen as more of a crime than ever and buses have become safer. This kind of stuff proves that you CAN die anyday. God used all of those in the bus (survivors and those less fortunate) to help introduce others to Christ. Two things I question are how did the drunk driver make it a half hour up the highway without crashing and why a lawsuit towards Ford was filed considering it wasn't their fault that the bus hadn't complied with the new standards, because the bus was made nine days before they were issued. By the way, you should not remove that sign representing the tragic event, because that would be very disrespectful. :(

At January 25, 2011 at 11:25 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Here's a neat update on one of the survivors...


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