On Saturday, May 14, 1988, at 10:00 p.m. a Radcliff First Assembly of God youth group was on a bus heading home to Radcliff, Kentucky, from an amusement park outing. Most of the 67 on the bus were minors. Four were adults.
A pickup driving the wrong way down Hwy. I-71 crashed headlong into the bus.
Some on the bus did not even feel an impact. Christy Pearman, 15, only noticed something amiss when a rider speculated, “We must’ve hit a deer.”
Unnoticed at first, the gas tank had ruptured.
The bus caught fire.
The impact jammed the front door so there was a rush to the back exit.
Sirens wailed as ambulances sped to the scene. Survivors were rushed to hospitals.
The fire killed 27 people: 24 children and three adults. The only adult survivor was a slight woman who shimmied out a window.
Authorities drove families of those who had been on the bus to an inn. Medical Examiner George Nichols told them it was pointless to view the dead bodies because fire had rendered them unrecognizable. They were identified from dental records.
Ten survivors were badly burned. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer, “For months afterwards, they were slathered with oil each morning, then wrapped in tight garments to minimize scarring.” One had a foot amputated. Only six escaped without significant injuries.
The Other Driver
The driver who crashed into the bus was Larry Mahoney, 36. His blood alcohol was .24, twice Kentucky’s limit for legal intoxication. His pickup was crushed. Larry was knocked unconscious with a collapsed lung.
He awoke in the hospital, bedridden with a tube in his mouth when his sisters, Judy O’Donovan and Debbie Daugherty, told him about the accident.
Debbie recalled, “Judy got on one side of the bed and I got on the other. I told him, ‘You know, Larry, you was in an accident and 27′s been killed.”
Tears streamed down his face. When he fully realized what had happened, his agitation led doctors to sedate him.
Larry grew up on a farm. As a child, Larry was good-natured but shy. He received poor grades except for A’s in “conduct.” He dropped out of high school after his freshman year.
A few years later, girlfriend Janice King told Larry she was pregnant. They married in 1972. After they divorced in 1979, Larry showed up at Janice’s apartment to threaten her and her new boyfriend. For that incident, Larry pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in 1980.
In 1982, girlfriend Betty Davis told him she was pregnant. They also married. Friends later pointed to Larry’s history of marrying pregnant girlfriends to show how he strives to ”do the right thing.”
That same year Larry got into a brawl at a pizza parlor. He again pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.
Daughter Shawna was born with spina bifida, a birth defect of the spinal cord. She bonded strongly with Larry. Betty recalled that when Shawna awoke at night fretting, only Larry could calm her.
Larry was arrested for driving while intoxicated in 1984. He paid a fine and attended an alcohol education program.
Betty and Larry divorced in 1987.
Larry enjoyed playing pool, fishing, and hunting. He said about his coonhounds, “I have a love for those dogs. I like to just sit back there and pet on ‘em.”
On the afternoon of May 14, 1988, Larry drank at a bar and then a friend’s house. Then he drove to another friend’s house and drank. Someone noticed that Larry appeared intoxicated and asked for his car keys. Larry handed them over. Later, he asked for them back. The friend asked Larry where he was going and Larry replied that he would drive straight home. Knowing Larry lived a short distance away, the friend returned the keys.
But somehow, Larry wound up driving the wrong way on Hwy. I-71.
Was the Bus Fatally Flawed?
That no one was hurt from the impact led many to wonder if bus flaws contributed to the tragedy.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) called a press conference the following Monday. The book Reckless Disregard reports, “NTSB member Joseph Nall pointed out that the bus was not equipped with a metal cage to protect its gas tank; school buses of its type had added the cage to comply with a federal safety standard that went into effect on April 1, 1977.” The bus was built shortly before that.
Reckless Disregard observes that within three days of the crash, the Courier-Journal pointed to bus problems including the lack of fuel tank protection, the tank’s position next to the main door, the highly flammable material of the seats and that there was only one emergency exit.
Dick Booher and Ron Cox, whose sons had survived, quickly organized a “Family Support Group” that met on Tuesday, May 17, 1988 and included all families who had someone on the bus. Terry Bennett of the local Skeeters & Bennett law firm soon arrived. He said his firm wanted to represent the families of the crash victim.
Most families agreed to be represented by Skeeters & Bennett. Even most of those who choose other attorneys agreed to the settlement worked out within two months of the crash by Skeeters and Bennett with Ford Motor Company, which had built the chassis and engine, and Sheller-Globe Corporation, which had built the body. Settlement terms were not made public.
Two families sued Ford and Sheller-Globe. They were Larry and Janey Fair, parents of Shannon Fair, 14, and James and Karolyn Nunnallee, parents of Patty Nunnalee, 10. Both daughters perished in the accident. The Fairs and Nunnallees filed suit July 11, 1988 contending that Ford had disregarded danger when it placed an unshielded fuel tank close to the bus’s front door and that Sheller-Globe acted recklessly in building a bus with flammable seats, inadequate emergency exits and an overly narrow aisle.
On February 7, 1992 Sheller-Globe settled with both families, paying each $1.3 million.
The court case against Ford commenced on February 10, 1992. However, after several witnesses testified, the parties settled. Ford did not admit wrongdoing but awarded the Fairs and Nunnallees $5 million each.
Trial and Conviction
Larry Mahoney’s trial began in November 1990. He was charged with 27 counts of murder. Although the prosecution did not seek the death penalty and conceded he had not intended to kill, the murder charges were based on the legal grounds that driving drunk constituted “extreme indifference to human life.”
Kentucky Assistant Attorney General Paul Richwalsky Jr. prosecuted.
Survivors testified to the carnage. Three times Larry wept during their testimony.
William L. Summers and Russell Baldani were Larry’s court-appointed attorneys. Jack Hildebrand, a lawyer who volunteered to help in the defense without pay, assisted them. People reported that Larry’s attorneys “argued that that no one would have died if Ford Motor Co. and the Sheller-Globe Corp. had not built a bus that was an inferno waiting to happen.”
The defense called NASA fire and safety engineer Eugene Sober. He testified that when polyurethane, of which the seats were made, burns it is “about as hazardous as anything you can find.” He said easily available flame-retardant chemicals had not been used on the seats.
Richwalsky retorted that the bus “would still be on the highway” had Larry not driven drunk.
Larry took the stand. People stated, “He said the last thing he remember was drinking some clear liquid that made him gasp – possibly vodka – and some Pepsi that may have been spiked.” Sipping that Pepsi was his last memory until awakening hospitalized the next morning. “I really am sorry,” he testified, addressing victims and their families. “I know it’s not going to make you feel any different toward me . . . but that’s all I know to say.”
Richwalsky told jurors, “The apologies are too late. Now it’s time to pay.”
The jury deliberated 11 hours before convicting him of 27 counts of second-degree manslaughter along with lesser offenses. They recommended a sentence of 16 years.
Larry was imprisoned at the Kentucky State Reformatory. Media organizations repeatedly requested interviews but he rejected them. A model prisoner, he earned his GED, worked as a janitor and participated in Alcoholics Anonymous.
In 1997, he had his first opportunity to apply for parole but waived it. The parole board decided he would not have a second chance to apply.
He was released on September 1, 1999 after serving 10 years and 11 months.
Three weeks later he married a woman he had dated prior to the accident and who had visited him regularly during his imprisonment. He reportedly began working in a factory after his release.
Larry has turned down all invitations to share his experience in public to warn people against drunk driving. People close to him say he cannot stand to talk about it.
A sign still marks the site of the tragedy. Elsewhere in Radcliff are memorials to the victims.
Impact: After the Crash is the title of a documentary currently being made about the tragedy. Written by David Black Smith and directed by Jason Epperson, it will use the struggles of scarred survivor turned University of Kentucky football player Harold Dennis as the focal point to tell this tragic story.
Sources on following page.