Carrollton, Kentucky bus collision

Carrollton, Kentucky bus collision

Infobox bus accident
title=Carrollton bus collision
date=23:00, May 14, 1988
location=near Carrollton, Kentucky
bus=Church bus
vehicles=Toyota Hilux, automobile

The Carrollton bus collision was one of the most deadly bus disasters in United States history.

About 11:00 p.m. EDT on Saturday May 14 1988, Larry Mahoney, a drunk driver in a pickup truck traveling in the wrong direction on an interstate highway in a rural, unincorporated area of Carroll County, Kentucky 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. Six passengers escaped without significant injury. Mahoney sustained minor injuries.

In the aftermath of the disaster, several family members of victims became active leaders of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and one became national president of the organization (Karolyn Nunnallee). 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.

Other safety issues remains to be addressed. Flammability of materials used in bus seating must also be factored with cost, durability and performance of the foam in impact situations. Another unresolved issue is the lack of requirements for occupant restraints such as seat belts in larger capacity school buses. Some advocates find it ironic that use of the lap seat belts currently available would have likely reduced the number of the 40 occupants who managed to escape the bus in the short time available during the Carrollton incident.

On Interstate 71, the crash site is marked with a highway sign erected by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC). Even twenty years later, memorial items such as crosses and flower arrangements are placed at the site by families and friends. As of November 2007, the Carrollton crash remains the worst bus crash in U.S. history tied for fatalities with the Prestonsburg bus disaster which occurred 30 years earlier in Floyd County, Kentucky in 1958.

The bus, driver, and Church Day at Kings Island

On May 14, 1988, a youth group consisting of mostly teenagers (most of whom attended North Hardin High School) 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 school bus

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. (99 cm) wide seats on either side of a central aisle 12 in. (30 cm) 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, including 3 for Meade County.

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, notably better clear space access to rear emergency exits, were required by revised federal regulations on all school buses built for use in the U.S. with beginning production dates of the chassis 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.

The trip before the crash

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 (227-litre) fuel tank with gasoline, then resumed the trip southward.

The crash

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.

Evacuation difficulties

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. (23 cm x 61 cm) 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. (30 cm) 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 (1 m) 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.

Transporting injured, removing those killed

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; an accident near Prestonsburg, Kentucky in 1958 also claimed 27 lives, but not as many additional injuries.

NTSB report of the collision

The National Transportation Safety Board responded, conducted an investigation and issued a report on March 28, 1989.

NTSB Summary

:"About 10:55 p.m. EDT on May 14, 1988, a pickup truck traveling northbound in the southbound lanes of Interstate 71 struck head-on a church activity bus traveling southbound in the left lane of the highway near Carrollton, Kentucky. As the pickup truck rotated during impact, it struck a passenger car traveling southbound in the right lane near the church bus. The church bus fuel tank was punctured during the collision sequence, and a fire ensued, engulfing the entire bus. The bus driver and 26 bus passengers were fatally injured. Thirty-four bus passengers sustained minor to critical injuries, and six bus passengers were not injured. The pickup truck driver sustained serious injuries, but neither occupant of the passenger car was injured."

Post-collision actions

When fire first broke out immediately after the collision, bus driver John Pearman tried to put it out with a small fire extinguisher while passengers began to evacuate through the center rear emergency door, squeezing through the narrow opening between the two rear seats and jumping approximately 3 feet to the ground. The front door was blocked by collision damage, and there were no emergency exit windows or roof hatches, as found on commercial buses and some school buses of the time. Only one adult, a woman who was of small stature, managed to escape through a nine-inch opening side window. When she looked back up from the ground, the window opening was filled with flames. The other three adults aboard, including Pearman, died.

Survivors stated that after emptying the small fire extinguisher, Pearman helped some of the many children find their way down the narrow and dark aisle to the only practical way out of the smoke-filled bus. Several older boys attempted to kick out side windows without success. A pileup of passengers formed in and adjacent to the twelve inch aisle leading to the rear door, which was partially blocked by seat backs from the last row and a cooler stored in the aisle near row 10.

Many of those who made it to the area adjacent to rear door were wedged in so tightly that passersby helped pull children out from the human jam at the rear emergency door by force. However, within four minutes or less, the entire bus was on fire, and soon the exodus of passengers stopped. At that point, the passersby who had stopped to help could not reach those still aboard due to the raging fire, and turned their efforts to tending to the crowd of 40 stunned and mostly injured survivors.

School bus and church bus standards and regulations

A contributing factor to the crash itself and the severity seemed to be loopholes between the laws and procedures for a school bus and those involving the same vehicle after it was released from school service, but continued to be used for transporting passengers in non-school use. (Had the bus been built new in March 1977 for the non-school use such as a church activity bus, the applicable federal motor vehicle standards in place at that time would have required it to have been built with more emergency exits than were required for school buses). One of the NTSB recommendations after the Carrollton Bus Disaster was that school buses have no fewer emergency exits than required of non-school buses.

Some states also require that the usually different seating capacities for children and adults be displayed near the service door of school buses and non-school buses. Most states consider secondary school (middle and high school) age students to be adults with regards to the space occupied in bus seats and aisles by their bodies.

Media coverage, book

Among the many media agencies which provided thorough coverage, which has extended even to the 10th and 15th anniversaries of the disaster, "The Courier-Journal" of Louisville, Kentucky received the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for General News Reporting for its coverage.

Following the NTSB report—and much sooner in many instances—many federal, state, and local agencies and bus manufacturers changed regulations, vehicle features, and operating practices.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a grassroots organization, worked both before and after the Carrollton crash to reduce the hazards created by drunk (or drinking) drivers. Two mothers of Carrollton victims became national president and vice president of the organization.

There was considerable civil litigation. Ford Motor Company, Sheller-Globe Corporation, and others eventually contributed to settlements with all victims and/or their families.

The collision and its aftermath, including efforts of some of the families to obtain more than financial settlements, were chronicled by author James S. Kunen in his 1994 book "Reckless Disregard: Corporate Greed, Government Indifference, and the Kentucky School Bus Crash".

Long-term ramifications

NTSB summary conclusion

The NTSB determined "the probable cause of the collision between the pickup truck and the church activity bus was the alcohol-impaired condition of the pickup truck driver who, operated his vehicle opposite to the direction of traffic flow on an interstate highway."

"Contributing to the severity of the accident was the puncture of the bus fuel tank and ensuing fire in the bus, the partial blockage by the rear bench seats of the area leading to the rear emergency door which impeded rapid passenger egress, and the flammability of the materials in the bus seat cushions."

"The safety issues discussed in the report include:

* effects of alcohol on driver performance,
* effectiveness of driving-under-the-influence program in Kentucky,
* current Federal standards used in school bus manufacture,
* flammability and toxicity of school bus seating materials,
* emergency egress on school buses, and
* fuel system integrity of school buses"

Larry Mahoney

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, "Justice v. Commonwealth", 987 S.W.2d 306 (Ky. Dec 17, 1998). 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.

That week, according to a published account in "The Courier-Journal" (Louisville), some survivors of the crash and families of the victims had said that they were willing to forgive Mahoney though the disaster marked forever the congregation of the First Assembly of God, which had many members on the bus. "I feel a little bit sorry for him," Katrina Henderson, then 23, told "The Courier-Journal" in 1998. "He didn't wake up one day and say 'I'm going to kill 27 people.' That's not to take any blame away from him. I think that he is a person who made some very bad choices and he paid for those choices," said Henderson, who was age 12 when she survived the wreck. The victims were members of a church, and many felt called to forgive him, as forgiveness is a tenet of Christianity.

During his trial, the idea was discussed that Mahoney could save lives by talking to school groups, but Mahoney has so far declined.

According to a story by " [ The Cincinnati Enquirer] " in 2003, Mahoney was living in quiet, self-imposed obscurity in rural Owen County, Kentucky, about ten miles (16 km) from the crash site.

MADD and Drunk Driving prevention

The collision riveted the nation's attention on the problem of drunken driving like never before and has been credited in part with causing the steady decline in the number of alcohol-related fatalities.

One of the victims, the youngest killed on the fatal bus, was 10 year-old Patricia "Patty" Susan Nunnallee. Patty's mother, Karolyn Nunnallee became an active member of MADD after the crash, eventually becoming MADD's national president. Patty's mother wrote on MADD's memorial web page to Patty: "They were traveling on a school bus, so I thought she'd be safe".

Janey Fair, whose 14 year old daughter Shannon was killed, become a national lobbyist for MADD, and rose within the organization to become a member of the Board of Directors and is a national vice-president. She is also head of the Kentucky Victims Coalition. According to the MADD website, "MADD helped me find my inner strength and see that life could go on," Janey said. "I have found I can make real changes in people's attitudes about drinking and driving and in how our government addresses this critical problem. Additionally, I can help other victims move forward in their lives." Her husband also became active locally in MADD.

Joy Williams, wife of Lee Williams, a pastor of the church, and their two young daughters, Kristen and Robin, were among those killed. Dotty Pearman's husband, John Pearman was associate pastor at the church and the bus driver, was also was killed while their daughter, Christy, was involved in the crash and survived.

In the year after the crash, Lee Williams and Dotty Pearman, who barely knew each other before the crash, became friends and eventually married.

Lee and Dotty Williams also volunteer for MADD. Lee is a former chapter president of MADD in Hardin County, Kentucky, and Dotty is the current president. The couple often speaks to school groups, assists with health fairs and participates in other local events. "If I can persuade one person not to drink and drive, I've won," said Dotty. "I especially think it is important to educate children early on about the dangers of drinking and driving. We need to address the issue of alcohol with youth before it becomes a problem."

Changes in Kentucky

Kentucky now requires all school buses to have nine emergency exits—more than any other federal or state standard. This includes front and back doors, a side door, four emergency windows and two roof exits. The bus that crashed at Carrollton had only front and back exits, and 11 rows of 39" seats, including the crucial area near the rear door.

Buses used by Kentucky schools must also have a cage around the fuel tank, a stronger frame and roof to resist crumpling on impact and rollover, high-backed seats, extra seat padding, a fuel system that slows leaks, flame-retardant seats and floors, reflective tape on all emergency exits, and strobe lights on the exterior. Schools also must have a diesel-powered fleet.

In 1991, Kentucky enacted stricter drunk driving laws.


*Ford Motor Company paid for a black marble memorial in North Hardin Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Radcliff, Kentucky. The stone lists the names of all of the persons who were aboard the bus during the crash.

*The Kentucky Department of Transportation has a small sign reading "SITE OF FATAL BUS CRASH MAY 14, 1988" at the site of the crash. There has been some controversy over the sign. There has been a [ newspaper story] and a [ website with comments, including that of one of the survivors] .


*Kunen, James S. (1994) "Reckless Disregard: Corporate Greed, Government Indifference, and the Kentucky School Bus Crash", Simon & Schuster: New York, NY, U.S.A. (ISBN 0-671-70533-4)
* [ NTSB REPORT HAR-89-01 "Pickup Truck/Church Activity Bus Head-on Collision and Fire Near Carrollton, Kentucky May 14, 1988"] . NTSB Report Number: HAR-89-01, adopted on 3/28/1989. NTIS Report Number: PB89-916201.

ee also

*School bus
*Church bus and school bus safety
*Wayne Corporation - History of a different school bus manufacturer with information about bus safety engineering

External links

* [ Daily Egyptian at Southern Illinois University Carbondale] has a large number of stories on drunk driving, and some on this incident specifically.
*A film, [ The Phoenix] , produced in June 2004, is a dramatic feature film in pre-production that explores the story of Harold Dennis, one of the bus survivors. The film is to recount Dennis' recovery and subsequent success as a football player at the University of Kentucky following the crash.
* [ A news story from 2003 about Larry Mahoney]
* [ Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (M.A.D.D.)]
* [ School Bus Fleet Magazine Official website] another place with a comprehensive listing of links, this site also includes access to a user forum where anyone can ask questions and get help and advice on line
* [ US DOT, National Highway Safety and Traffic Administration official website]
* [ National Coalition For School Bus Safety official website]
* [ Church Business Magazine: Driving Into The Danger Zone – Minimize The Risks Of Transporting Children]
* [ Auto Safety Expert Byron Bloch on School Bus Hazards]
* [ Cincinnati Enquirer (1998): 10th Anniversary of 1988 Bus Crash, with links]
* [ Cincinnati Enquirer (1998): Larry Mahoney on the 10th Anniversary of 1988 Bus Crash]
*cite news|url=|title=10 years after crash, key flaw in school buses remains|author=Charles Wolfe|first=Charles|last=Wolfe|work=The Kentucky Post|publisher=E. W. Scripps Company|date=1998-05-14|archiveurl=|archivedate=2005-11-03
*cite news|url=|title=Roads safer after tragic Carrollton bus crash|author=Michael Collins|first=Michael|last=Collins|work=The Kentucky Post|publisher=E. W. Scripps Company|date=1998-05-15|archiveurl=|archivedate=2006-02-02
* [ Cincinnati Enquirer (May 2003): Drunken driver lives in obscurity]
* [ Pentecostal Evangel (February 29, 2004): Inferno on Interstate 71]

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