Carrollton bus collision

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Carrollton, Kentucky bus collision
DateMay 14, 1988
Time10:55 PM
LocationInterstate 71
5 mi (8.0 km) S from Carrollton, Kentucky
Coordinates38°36′19″N 85°10′13″W / 38.605241°N 85.170261°W / 38.605241; -85.170261
CountryUnited States
Bus ownerRadcliff Assembly of God (Radcliff, Kentucky)
Type of incidentHead-on collision resulting in catastrophic fire of bus
CausePickup truck driver driving under the influence in wrong direction
Egress difficulties impairing bus evacuation (secondary)
Bus1, 1977 Superior/Ford B-700 as church bus
Vehicles1, Toyota Hilux pickup truck

The Carrollton bus collision occurred on May 14, 1988, on Interstate 71 in unincorporated Carroll County, Kentucky. Involving a former school bus in use by a church youth group and a pickup truck driven by an impaired driver, the head-on collision was the deadliest incident involving drunk driving and the third-deadliest bus crash in United States history. Of the 67 people on the bus (counting the driver), there were 27 fatalities in the accident, the same number as the 1958 Prestonsburg, Kentucky, bus disaster and behind the 1976 Yuba City bus disaster (29) and 1963 Chualar bus crashes (32).

In the aftermath of the disaster, 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. These include an increased number of emergency exits, higher standards for structural integrity, and the use of less volatile diesel fuel (over gasoline). On Interstate 71, the crash site is marked with a highway sign erected by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC).Memorial items such as crosses and flower arrangements are regularly placed at the site by families and friends.


On May 14, 1988, a youth group consisting of mostly teenagers who attended North Hardin High School, James T. Alton Middle School, Radcliff Middle School and four adults from Assembly of God in Radcliff, Kentucky boarded their church activity bus and headed to Kings Island theme park in Mason, Ohio (north of Cincinnati, 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 involved in the crash was a conventional type body-on-chassis school bus model. The 1977 Ford B700 school bus chassis was equipped with a Superior school bus body, a model with 11 rows of 39 inches (99 cm) wide seats on either side of a central aisle 12 inches (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.

The chassis was manufactured at Ford's expansive Kentucky Truck Plant located in Louisville and then was shipped to Lima, Ohio, where the body was installed at Superior Coach Company, a company owned by industrial conglomerate Sheller-Globe Corporation. 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 type 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 of that year.

The completed bus was delivered in time for use during the 1977-78 school year, and served ten years in use as a school bus. Radcliff Assembly of God acquired the used school bus as surplus from the Meade County school district, and it had been owned by the church for about one year. In use with the church, the bus had successfully made the same round-trip to Kings 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. By 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 (227-litre) fuel tank with gasoline, then resumed the trip southward.


At 10:55 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.[1]

The right front of the pickup truck struck 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 inoperative. Leaking gasoline from the punctured fuel tank was ignited by sparks caused from metal parts of the suspension scraping along the road. 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 creating unsurvivable flash fire conditions.

Evacuation difficulties[edit]

Nobody aboard the bus was seriously injured by the actual collision between the two vehicles (though both vehicle drivers sustained injuries). However, the impact of the collision created a secondary situation, as the right front suspension of the Ford chassis broke off through the bus stepwell, puncturing the gasoline fuel tank and igniting the fuel supply. To quickly evacuate the bus in smoke and darkness, all 67 individuals could only use a single designated point of exit: the rear emergency door. In total, 26 passengers and the bus driver died, 34 passengers were injured, and 6 passengers escaped the bus without serious injury. Larry Mahoney, the driver of the Toyota pickup, sustained injuries from the collision.

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 fire extinguisher of the bus, and another chaperone, a small-bodied woman who managed to squeeze out a 9 in × 24 in (23 cm × 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 inches (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 (0.91 m) below. Soon the entire interior of the bus flashed over, ultimately burning the trapped 27 people remaining aboard. At that point, no more passengers were accessible from outside the bus. Emergency vehicles had not yet arrived.


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 the rear door were wedged in so tightly that passersby had to help 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 mostly injured survivors.

Emergency response[edit]

After fire, rescue, and Kentucky State Police troopers 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, the KSP and the Carroll County coroner went through the interior of the bus seat by seat to find and remove bodies. Most of the bodies were burned beyond recognition. 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 varying 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 pickup truck driver who was also injured. As of February 2010, this collision had the highest death and injury toll of any school bus crash in United States history; a crash near Prestonsburg, Kentucky in 1958 also claimed 27 lives, but there were not as many additional injuries.


NTSB report[edit]

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

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.

The NTSB determined that "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."

School bus and church bus standards and regulations[edit]

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.

Sentencing of Larry Mahoney[edit]

Mahoney had been arrested for DUI once before. His blood alcohol concentration (BAC) the night of the crash 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, and 27 counts of wanton endangerment in the first degree.[2] At trial, he was represented by the Cleveland, Ohio criminal defense lawyer, William L. Summers. 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 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. December 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 by their religious beliefs to forgive him.[citation needed]

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.[2]

MADD and drunk driving prevention[edit]

The collision riveted the nation's attention on the problem of drunken driving as 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 ten-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 volunteer for MADD, and rose within the organization to become a member of the Board of Directors. She was 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 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.[3]

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[edit]

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, an 8" wide black band with the district name in white letters on the side, and strobe lights on the exterior. Schools also must have a diesel-powered fleet. (Unlike gasoline, diesel fuel is not highly flammable.)

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 2 small signs, 1 in each direction of I-71, reading "SITE OF FATAL BUS CRASH MAY 14, 1988" at the site of the crash. There has been some controversy over the signs.[2]

Media coverage[edit]

Among the many media agencies that provided thorough coverage, 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.

The Carrollton bus crash is the subject of the 2013 documentary film Impact After the Crash.[4]


  1. ^ Larry Copeland, @ByLarryCopeland, USA TODAY. "Survivors recall deadliest drunken-driving crash". Retrieved 2018-05-14.
  2. ^ a b c Crowley, Patrick (May 14, 2003). "Drunken driver lives in obscurity". The Cincinnati Enquirer. Archived from the original on January 22, 2013. Retrieved March 30, 2014.()
  3. ^ "14 years later, Carrollton bus crash still vivid". The Corydon Democrat. December 25, 2002. Retrieved March 30, 2014.
  4. ^ "Impact After the Crash". IMDb. Retrieved March 30, 2014.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 38°36′18.74″N 85°10′12.66″W / 38.6052056°N 85.1701833°W / 38.6052056; -85.1701833