The yellow school bus is an American icon, a familiar sight throughout the states and in media, carrying children to and from school and other activities. The bright colour was chosen to make them stand out amongst other vehicles, ensuring that it’s easy for other drivers to spot them and steer clear of them.
Assuming, of course, that the driver in question is in a state of mind to do so.
May 14th, 1988, was Church Day at the Kings Island Amusement Park in Ohio, and it brought buses filled with eager kids and teens from miles around. Under warm, sunny skies, they enjoyed rollercoaster rides, ate fast food, and bought souvenirs, but eventually it was time to go home.
One of those buses belonged to the Radcliff First Assembly of God church; an old school bus that they’d bought the previous year. Associate pastor John Pearman was driving, and together with youth pastor Chuck Kytta had sixty-three youths in his care that day. There were also two other adult chaperones on the bus – Joy Williams, the church’s music director, and her friend Janie Padgett.
Padgett was initially a little nervous because there were a lot of kids, and the bus was very crowded.
“And then everybody started introducing themselves and Joy, my friend, she said, Oh Janie we’re gonna have a great time, you’re gonna be Patty Nunnallee’s more or less mother for the day and Joy was gonna be the mother for the two of her children. So the instant that I met Patty Nunnallee I fell in love with her because she was exactly, had the personality of my granddaughter so we got along well. It was just a beautiful May day, that entire day, just a gorgeous day.”
At ten years old, Patty Nunnallee was one of the youngest children on the bus, and the same age as Joy’s youngest daughter, Robin. She had spent the previous night with the Williams family, so she could go on the trip with them.
Harold Dennis Jr. was one of the kids on the bus. He recalled later:
“It was the place to be. I mean there was no question if you weren’t going to King’s Island with the First Assembly of God this day you weren’t cool I guess, which is why I pressed so hard for my mom to allow me to go but we were all excited.”
Wayne Cox had been invited by Christy Pearman, the daughter of the associate pastor.
“Christy invited me to go on a church trip, it was gonna be a day away and kind of it became the thing to do, there was a big group obviously of kids our age going on the trip.So yeah, very excited to go on the trip, to be tagging along with Christy, and obviously a little puppy love made that even more exciting for me… I was scared to death of John Pearman. He was the nicest guy ever, he obviously had a great reputation, but I’m an eighth grade boy and he had made it pretty clear that he was gonna protect his daughter so he kinda gave me the evil eye, I think. In a loving sort of way.”
The two shared a kiss on the bus going home; Christy remembered the interior lights of the bus turning on just afterwards, and when they stopped at a gas station, she ran into her dad who promptly informed her that he was keeping an eye on them. Some of the kids were pretty sure Christy would be in trouble when they got home.
Ciaran Foran, like many of the other kids, had spent the last of her money on a souvenir of the day – a large helium balloon. As they drove down Interstate 71, it was bobbing around the bus in the breeze from the windows, so she had put it on her lap, and rested her head on it, like a pillow. At the front of the bus, Carey Aurentz had turned sideways in her seat so that she could talk to Billy Nichols and her friend Emillie Thompson, who had invited her on the trip. Emillie was sharing a seat with the adult chaperones, Joy Williams and Janey Padgett, and when the ladies felt warm they asked the kids to help them open a window.
According to James S. Kunen in his book “Reckless Disregard”:
“She knew that she couldn’t open the window herself. You needed two hands to squeeze the white plastic clips at the top corners of the window toward the center, and then you needed a third hand to push the upper window down. Phillip Morgan stood and helped the women open it.”
It was a long drive home, and they didn’t expect to get back to the church until late, so while some of the kids chatted, many others were dozing off, lulled by the steady drone of the bus’s engine and the noise of night-time traffic.
Then, they were startled from their sleep by a loud crash and a sudden jolt. Some hit the back of the seats in front of them; Carey Aurentz, sitting sideways, was thrown to the floor.
“It threw me out of my seat, right into the aisle so it ended up that I was sitting on the floor facing the back of the bus and I had to brace myself with my hands behind me because we were skidding and the right front of the bus was tilted downwards.”
None of the passengers knew, in that moment, what had hit them. However, in a car on the other side of the highway, Jack and Joan Armstrong knew. They had been watching, waiting for it to happen, and hoping that it wouldn’t.
At 10:25pm, they had pulled off the interstate in Eminence, Kentucky, to pick up some sodas, and shortly afterwards, had noticed something odd on the other side of the road.
“Joan spotted a pickup truck going northbound in the southbound passing lane, and pointed it out to Jack. “Isn’t that truck going the wrong way?” she asked.
“Yes, I believe it is, he replied. “There’s going to be one hell of a wreck.” He followed the pickup at a distance of a hundred yards for about two miles, observing that it was going 50 to 55 mph. Joan kept her eyes on it, noticing that it drove straight as an arrow, never tried to get out of anybody’s way; there was never so much as a flicker of the truck’s brake lights.”
At a curve in the interstate, the truck had effectively burst out of nowhere, giving John Pearman at the wheel of the bus no time to react. It had hit them at the front, on the right hand side, where the main door was. The bus skidded to a halt, as the pickup truck spun out, struck another car and sent it across the median, then itself came to a halt.
Although none of the passengers were seriously injured by the impact, they were obviously all shocked and shaken. However, they had no time to recover their senses, because almost instantly there was a new shock.
Carey Aurentz recalled:
“Just this huge whoosh and I knew the bus was on fire, I could feel the heat behind me, I could see sort of an orange glow and the only thing that kept running in my head was, alternately, I can’t believe this is happening to me, and, don’t turn around.”
Because she had been thrown out of her seat in one of the first rows, she was very close to the fire, which started right by the main door of the bus.
Jerry Wheeler, sitting eight rows back, thought it was all a dream at first.
“Once I realised what was going on and was trying to get out, the aisles were already packed. I had to climb over seats. I could see a white light towards the back of the doors and I figure that was the way out so I just started climbing in that direction.”
Another passenger, Darrin Jaquess, later said,
“I did hear, y’know, the burst of flames, I actually watched the skin on my left hand shrivel up, not knowing that my right hand was as bad as it was…I was standing up so I inhaled all the smoke and eventually passed out.”
In the chaos, almost everyone on the bus was screaming and scrambling to escape.
Because the fire had quickly engulfed the front door, almost everyone on the bus was trying to get to the only other door – the emergency exit at the back. To get there, they had to navigate the narrow aisle way – only 12 inches, or 30 cm wide, and partially blocked by a drinks cooler, a giant inflatable crayon and other bulky souvenirs – or climb over the backs of the seats. The only other possible way out would be the windows, which were very hard to open at the best of times and left only a small opening. Having opened the window shortly before the crash, and being a small woman at only 5’ 2”, the chaperone Janey Padgett was able to escape that way.
“All I could see was flames, they were getting higher and higher, and I could see John Pearman, he was the driver of the bus, I could see him kind of slumped over the steering wheel and I could see the fire… He was like a silhouette in the orange and yellow flames and the next thing I knew I was on the ground outside the bus. And so I thought I’ve got to look back, and I looked back and my seat that I came out of the window was engulfed in flames.”
Others tried to open windows, and some of the older boys tried to kick windows out, but with no success. The emergency door at the back was the only option, and time was running out quickly.
Harold Dennis Jr recalled:
“It all happened very very very fast. Very quickly, very chaotically… If you didn’t react instantly, you weren’t gonna make it.
I didn’t know what I was doing, I went toward the front and that’s right where the fire was, the gas tank was a few rows in front of me on the opposite side of the bus, so I turned around and I tried to get out of a window. The old style buses where you had to pull these two clasps together simultaneously to get the windows down…
I climbed seat after seat after seat. I fought people, I fought bodies, I fought everything I could to get to the back.”
In the narrow space, a crush quickly formed. People fell or tripped, and others fell on top of them. Some of the passengers crawled over the bodies of their friends to get out. Others, having made their way out, turned to try and pull people out of the crush. The Armstrongs, having narrowly missed the second car spinning out across their lane, came to help – Jack Armstrong had been a volunteer firefighter for sixteen years – and others ran from nearby houses. The injured were carried to the wide grassy median of the interstate to wait for paramedics.
Harold Dennis Jr remembered feeling a pull, and then hitting the ground.
“Somebody grabs ahold of me, catches up with me and they lay me down in the median. The blades of grass in the median feeling like knives sticking me in the back of my arm, but I do remember somebody coming over to me and saying your sister’s okay, Kim is okay, Kim got out.”
Wayne Cox had been sitting near the back with Christy Pearman. He got out fairly quickly, but she had hesitated – her dad was, after all, still somewhere at the front of the bus.
“Before I knew it I was out on the pavement making my way over to the grassy median and then looking back at the bus and just trying to figure out where everybody was. I don’t remember any of my friends or Christy being anywhere even within sight. Y’know I just remember seeing bodies toward the back of the bus and kinda that mass of people getting off and trying to help others off.”
She would later recall:
“But I kind of remember that, being so hot and finding myself in an aisleway and turning towards the front to just yell for my dad. Dad! Dad! Dad!”
By the time she got out, the seats were so hot that they quite literally melted the skin from her palms. Others recalled seeing their friends with skin coming off their arms.
Ciaran Foran suffered severe burns when the helium balloon on her lap blew up. She would require repeated surgeries to recover, and the damage to her voice was still noticeable when she was interviewed for the documentary “Impact: After The Crash”, released in 2013.
“The paramedics came over and was talking to me and told me exactly what was gonna happen, that they were gonna pick me up on three and they were gonna put me on the stretcher and when they slid me into the ambulance they put me beside a medicine cabinet type thing that had reflection and I remember looking to the side and all I could see was this big black circle. But I couldn’t see anything else. It just looked like this big black thing of trash, and it was my face.”
After many had already escaped, Carey Aurentz was still on the bus.
“Something in me just started building and I just got mad and I just kept thinking no, I am not going to die on this bus, I am not. Somehow I just put my hands up on the seatback of the seat that I was crouched down in and I just used it like a pullup and I pulled my body up and I just fell over to the next seat.
I looked over to my right and it sort of illuminated, I happened to notice Anthony Marks. He was sort of standing with his back against the window and just looking at the front of the bus in horror.”
Jason Booker saw what happened next:
“And I’ll never forget it the rest of my life, ‘cause I turned back around after everybody had gotten out, it seemed like everybody was over attending to all the burn victims and I turned around I saw the back of the bus, I looked over my shoulder, I said Cheryl, somebody’s just dropped out of the back of the bus on the asphalt. So me and her ran over there and I said now Cheryl, you grab this person’s legs, I’ll grab her hands, and we’ll carry her over to the grass median with the rest of the burn victims. At the time I didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl.
It ended up being Carey Aurentz but her hair was gone, the cartilage was, y’know, she was severely burned, of course she had black soot all over so I couldn’t tell who it was…
I bent down, grabbed Carey’s arms, Cheryl bent down and grabbed her legs and all of a sudden she dropped her because she said, “Jason I can’t do it”. I said, “Cheryl just grab her legs real quick and we’ll carry her over there”, and she said, “no you don’t understand, her legs are too hot.” So I cradled Carey in my arms and took her over to the grass median.
So at thirteen years of age to witness something like that was really devastating to me.”
Meanwhile, parents and family members at home were unaware of the tragedy. When they first heard that the bus had been involved in an accident, many expected it to be a minor inconvenience. After all, it was a big school bus – they were safe vehicles to travel in, surely?
Lee Williams was married to Joy Williams, the church’s music director; their two daughters, Kristen aged 14 and Robin aged 10, were also on the trip.
“The phone rang, I believe it was somewhere around 11 or a little after 11. And when the phone rang you know to this day I don’t know who called. It was someone from the church saying Lee, the bus has been involved in an accident.
Well you know this is a big bus. Fender bender. Somebody ran into them at a stoplight or something. But I just said this is not right, something’s not right. So I got up and got dressed and I went over to the church. And when I got over to the church I knew something was terribly wrong.”
Janey Fair, whose 14-year-old daughter Shannon was also on the trip, similarly made her way to the church. It was not her church; Shannon had been invited by a friend, Jennifer Arnett, who played with her in the Radcliff Middle School band. Kunen described the scene waiting for her in “Reckless Disregard”:
“There must have been a hundred people, huddling in the parking lot and in the vestibule and inside the sanctuary. Some of them were holding on to each other and crying. Shannon’s friend Amy’s mother, Janet Wheelock, rushed over to Janey and said, “Janey, our babies are missing! They can’t find our babies.” She was crying, really crying hard, and Janey couldn’t understand why, because Janet was not a hysterical person. Then Janey saw on the wall the handwritten lists: One said who was in what hospital and in what condition. The other had nineteen names of those who were missing and not accounted for. It included Shannon and her friends Amy Wheelock and Jennifer Arnett and Cynthia Atherton and Denise Voglund and Kashawn Etheredge and Mary Daniels.”
The Reverend W. Don Tennison had heard the news shortly after midnight, when he got a call from the father of Conrad Garcia, one of the survivors, relaying what little information he’d got from his son: the bus had been hit head-on near Carrollton, Kentucky, and children were being sent to multiple hospitals.
He gathered church board members, and a volunteer to answer the phones, and tried to find out more. Eventually he learned from a state trooper that his own son Allen was okay; he was asked how many were on the bus, and he told them, adding that Chuck Kytta had a full list on the bus, in his briefcase. Around 1 am, another state trooper called, telling Tennison that it appeared the driver of the bus was dead. It wasn’t until a later call, around 2:30 or 3am, that the scale of the disaster was revealed. A trooper informed Tennison that they thought there were around seventeen or eighteen fatalities. He again told the police that there was a full list of passengers inside Chuck Kytta’s briefcase, on the bus. Only then was he told that the bus had burned; there was no briefcase any more.
As the night turned into morning, news gradually filtered through; as parents learned which hospitals their children had been taken to, they left to be with them. But some remained waiting.
Williams recalled how hard that wait was.
“All that night that’s the way it was. I would go home, nothing. I’d sit out in the parking lot and I would just say God, would you spare all three of my family? Don’t let nothing happen to Joy, Kristen or Robin. God, I’m just gonna believe that they’re gonna be okay, and then I began to hear who had died. Then we began to hear stories, about 4 o’clock in the morning, if you’ve not heard from your family, chances are you may not. Boy I tell you what… I quit praying and I began to bargain with God. God, will you spare at least two. And I didn’t say which two. And about 6 o’clock in the morning I was so desperate y’know, it’s amazing what you’ll say when you’re desperate. I said God I don’t wanna be left alone. If I have to lose one or two, will you just leave me somebody, I’m begging you. You go from prayer to bargain to begging.”
Kunen described the scenes that followed.
“Suddenly, they were summoned into the sanctuary. A husky-voiced woman police officer, barking out her words in an okay-listen-up manner, told them that their loved ones had not been found and that they would have to board vans and go up to Carrollton to assist in their identification.
“On the way up there,” she ordered, “if you would write down, if you can remember, what your son or daughter was last wearing, anything that’s unusual, any jewelry; if you can remember, and you don’t have dental records, where their cavities are. Anything at all.”
Despite the ominous nature of that request, many of the shocked parents didn’t grasp exactly what they were being told.
Carroll County Coroner James Dunn had arrived at the scene of the accident shortly before half past eleven that night. His duty was not with the injured children on the median, but with what remained inside the charred bus. Again, Kunen described the scene:
“Smoke and steam curled from the charred hulk. A firefighter stood guard silently at the back door, with a hollow look in his eyes. Dunn opened the door and climbed into the vehicle. It was still hot. The odor was overwhelming, burned rubber and upholstery and, weighing heavy on it all, the stench of burned hair and flesh. He swept his flashlight around and thought, “This cannot be true. I am having a nightmare.” He turned around, got off the bus and shut the door behind him.”
His job, however, required him to look again.
“Directly in front of him the tops of two skulls flashed in the beam of his light, the bare white bone streaked with crimson: Two bodies were lying face down in the aisle where they fell, one atop the other; no that was three bodies in a stack, he could just make out the one on the bottom. To the right of them, two bodies were draped over the back of a seat, their flesh seared tight to their ribs.”
With survivors, onlookers, and the media all around – and with the extent, and complicated nature of the devastation inside the bus – it was decided that a full investigation could not be carried out on the spot. It would take too long, and it would be too grisly for such a public place. Instead, they brought in cranes, tarpaulins and a flat bed truck, and removed the bus and all its contents to the National Guard Armory in Carrollton.
There, a team led by the State Medical Examiner George Nichols would go through the bus. They knew that there were 27 names on the list of the missing, but repeated searches of the bus only revealed 26 bodies until, finally, they located the last beneath a seat.
The families were taken to a conference room in a nearby Holiday Inn, where Nichols would address them. He told them that they would not be allowed to see the bodies; that they should remember their children how they were in the pictures in their wallets, and in their hearts.
The medical examiner’s team had to extract the bodies as carefully as possible, but the fire had made this very difficult. Some had been fused to each other or to the structure or furniture of the bus by the heat. They cut the seats out as they worked along the back, because they needed more room than the 12 inch aisle could provide. It was heartbreaking, even for those experienced in dealing with death. Carroll County Deputy Coroner Steve Meadows recalled later, “We’d work for fifteen minutes and then sit on the armory floor and cry and have a cup of coffee, and then get on the bus and work some more.”
Identification would also be difficult, because the bodies had been burned so far beyond recognition. Dental records provided identification for twenty three of the dead, two were identified by other physical characteristics – Joy Williams, for example, by being the only adult female killed on the bus – and two by elimination and personal effects, like jewellery.
Autopsies on all 27 of the victims were completed by the Sunday evening, and on the following Monday Nichols told a press conference that they had all died from smoke inhalation. That wasn’t entirely true, but Nichols said it was “easier for parents not to think their child was alive and burning.”
Amongst the survivors, injuries ranged from mere bruises and scratches – probably sustained in the scramble to get out – to life-altering burns and inhalation injuries.Amongst the most severely injured were Ciaran Foran, Harold Dennis Jr, and Carey Aurentz.
Ciaran told the documentary “Impact: After The Crash” about her injuries.
“I was burnt about 67% of my body, all third degree. My right hand was burnt to the bone. My fingers, the tendons, everything were gone. My vocal cords sustained a lot of heat damage and I had to have a tracheostomy for about a year and a half and 14 surgeries alone on my voice box and my vocal cords.”
“For burn victims the treatment is almost as bad if not worse than the actual injury itself. The treatment was very very painful. One of my early memories is going to the debridement process where, preparing your skin to be grafted, they would take these white gauzes and they would soak them in a saline solution and they’d literally wrap them on my burns on my face and they would let these gauzes dry and then they would come and peel them off, to peel off the debris and the dead skin and the scabs or whatever. Crying was a daily thing. Dreading anybody walking in my door that wasn’t family.”
“They took me to surgery that very first day, I guess it would have been May 15th, trying to see what to do about my leg, ‘cause it was, like I said, very badly burned, and it actually wasn’t until 12 days later, May 26th, that they actually decided that they were gonna have to amputate… And I remember saying to them, well I wanna see it. You’re gonna take my leg off, you’re gonna take my foot, I need to see it. And they’re like, you really don’t wanna see it, and I’m like, I want to see it. And so a couple of the nurses sort of sat me up in the bed and I looked down at it and I just thought, oh my God, how in the world did they think they were gonna save this?”
Most of the worst injuries were sustained closer to the front of the bus; exceptions included Foran, in row 9, who was badly burned when the helium balloon in her lap exploded, and Christy Pearman, in row 8, who had lingered on the bus looking for her father. She sustained severe burns to her arms and face.
While the families mourned, investigators now tried to establish exactly what had caused this terrible tragedy. It was obvious that the pick-up truck had been driving the wrong way along the interstate, and had struck the bus. But why?
At the scene of the accident, a volunteer rescuer had been first to reach the pick-up truck. Its roof was crushed almost as far as the dashboard, but the driver was alive, lying across the front seat.
The volunteer checked the man’s pockets for identification, and found a driver’s license in the name of Larry Mahoney. He also found three cans of Miller Lite beer in the car. Two were full; one was half-empty.
A sample of Mahoney’s blood, taken an hour and a half after the crash, showed an alcohol concentration of .24 percent. Under Kentucky law, a concentration of just 0.10 percent would make him guilty of drunk driving.
Mahoney told a journalist in 1989 that he had no memory of the crash.
“It was like a bad nightmare, and it still is. I felt like it was a nightmare, really. I kept telling myself, ‘Wake up, I’ve got to wake up.’ But I never did, and still haven’t.”
It was established that Mahoney had worked a twelve hour shift the previous night, from 7pm on May 13th to 7am on May 14th, and slept about five hours that day. He had been seen at a bar in Carrollton, drinking beer at about 2pm, and stopped by his parents’ house around 3 or 3:30 to collect some mail. Shortly after that, he was seen drinking at another bar, then around 5 or 5:30 he spoke to a female friend at a drugstore. She stated that she smelled alcohol on his breath, but that he was not drunk. At around 7:30 that evening, he had visited another friend to eat pizza and again drink beer for about an hour before going to another friend’s house. Two of his friends said that he had got out of his pickup truck with a beer in his hand, and they could tell he had been drinking. One even took Mahoney’s keys when he wanted to go and visit a female friend. However, he returned them when Mahoney said that he was only going to drive home.
Instead of turning towards his home, Mahoney turned towards Interstate 71, and somehow ended up driving northbound in the southbound lanes. Investigators established that he had missed fourteen vehicles, including two large semi trucks, before eventually colliding with the bus.
Carroll County Commonwealth’s Attorney John Ackman Jr. announced to a press conference that Mahoney would be charged with twenty seven counts of murder, and that they would seek the death penalty.
There was, however, considerable public support for Mahoney; news reports highlighted the fact that he was much like any other guy you’d find in the area.
“Everyone that we’ve talked to that knows him says that he’s a quiet, likable man, the son of good, Christian parents.”
Locals interviewed said that he was a hard worker, and he’d go out of his way to help others. Crowds gathered outside his trial, some holding signs with messages like, “Larry we love you. You are not a murderer,” and “Larry our prayers are with you also.”
He was also forgiven by some of the survivors and victims’ family members; Foran wrote to him and visited him in prison, saying later that she didn’t think of him as a murderer.
“Murder is the intent to kill. He was just a country boy that made a mistake.”
Others, however, couldn’t help but hate the man who had brought such devastation upon so many families. Aurentz recalled, “during the dressing changes, which were extremely painful, thinking Mahoney should be burned, and he should have to come in here and have to do dressing changes and I want him to feel the pain, they should cut off his leg too. I didn’t want him to die because I wanted him to suffer.”
In one of the few moments when he spoke in public, Mahoney said, “I know that y’all been wanting me to say something, and tell you I’m sorry, and that’s what I’ve been wanting to do, but I’ve been told not to say anything, so. I want you to know that I really am sorry.”
He was convicted 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, and sentenced to 16 years in prison. He served ten years and eleven months before being released on parole, and has avoided speaking about the tragedy since.
However, it was quickly clear that, at the heart of the Carrollton tragedy, there were two causes, inextricably linked. One was that a man had too much to drink, got behind the wheel of his vehicle, and drove the wrong way along a busy interstate. However, the autopsies of the victims made it clear that there was no significant trauma to any of the victims from the impact itself. They had all been killed by the fire. So why was the bus engulfed so quickly that so many people were severely burned or killed?
According to the report made by the National Transportation Safety Board:
“During the collision between the pickup truck and the church bus… The Safety Board believes that the right front leaf spring assembly from the bus may have struck and punctured the fuel tank because one end of the leaf spring matched the configuration of the fuel tank puncture, the leaf spring was in close proximity to the fuel tank, and the leaf spring was strong enough to penetrate the fuel tank… However… although the Safety Board believes it is likely, it has been unable to determine conclusively that the leaf spring assembly punctured the fuel tank.”
The fuel tank was suspended beneath the main body of the bus, just behind the front door and directly below the first three rows of passenger seats. Because they had stopped to fill up shortly before, it was close to full, carrying about 57 gallons. This provided ample fuel for the initial inferno.
The report continued:
“The Board believes that the most likely source of ignition was the scraping of the heavy metal leaf on the roadway which generated considerable heat and most likely a shower of sparks. Also, it is possible that the hot end of the leaf spring could have punctured the fuel tank in the final moments before the bus came to rest. Thus, either the sparks or the hot end of the leaf spring could have provided a likely source of ignition. The fire then entered the passenger compartment through the damaged right front floor and stepwell area of the bus…”
Once the fire had started, and began to spread, there were other things on board to help fuel it. Ciaran Foran’s helium balloon was one example; some of the girls also carried cans of hairspray with them, but the prime offender was part of the bus.
“The poly(vinyl)chloride-covered and polyurethane padded seat cushions provided the source of fuel for the fire once it spread inside the bus. Hydrogen chloride is a toxic product that is produced when this material is burned. The surviving passengers described extremely difficult conditions on the bus, including thick, black smoke; hot seats and floor; and plastic dripping from the ceiling…
Heat and toxic products accumulated first in the ceiling area of the bus. Assuming that a carboxyhemoglobin saturation of 50 percent is fatal, only 33 percent (9) of the deaths from the accident could be attributed to fatal carbon monoxide exposure alone. Thus, at least 66 percent of the victims must have died from other factors, such as heat and/or other toxic gases/ Inhalation injuries are symptomatic of exposure to a strong irritant, such as hydrogen chloride which produces severe irritation and chemical acid burns when it contacts the moist mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. The corneal burns were most likely due to exposure to hydrogen chloride. The Safety Board concludes that the exposure to hydrogen chloride and black soot most likely contributed to the inhalation injuries of survivors as well as those fatally injured.”
So, the fire started quickly because it had a massive amount of gasoline to power it; spread quickly because the covering and the padding of the seats fueled it, added to by other flammable substances on board, and produced a particularly thick, black smoke which made it difficult to navigate an exit.
In addition, the narrow aisleway channeled the passengers into a very small gap. Although the rear exit door itself was 36 inches wide, the back seats were the same size as all the others and overlapped the door, leaving a space that was only 12 inches wide at the floor and seat level, and 15 inches wide at the top of the seats. The inevitable congestion caused by having this as the only exit for 66 passengers led to the crush.
The report added:
“Two survivors stated that they escaped through a window, and others stated that they tried without success to kick out the windows. Had the passengers been able to escape from more than just two windows, it is very likely that more passengers would have survived this accident.”
There had, in fact, been a change in the regulations regarding the fuel tanks on school buses, introduced back in April 1977. The NTSB noted that:
“Before 1977, when a series of special Federal motor vehicle safety standards became effective which mandated a higher level of safety for school buses compared to other buses (except for emergency exit requirement), school buses were required only to meet the minimum standards required of all multipurpose passenger vehicles.”
The changes included a requirement for a guard to be installed around the fuel tank, which would give it further protection from impacts. Without this guard, almost half of the front and read of the tank was unprotected, and around two thirds of the outside edge – which, just to remind you, extended beneath three rows of passenger seats – was unprotected.
The process that led to those standards had begun back in 1970, with a report by the NTSB looking at two incidents in Alabama in 1968. Those accidents were attributed to insufficient strength in the side panels of the bus – the NTSB said they amounted to nothing more than “covering material” and had fewer rivets, further apart, than those on other kinds of buses.
With little action following this report, a House subcommittee on commerce and finance was convened in May 1973. Representative Les Aspin declared that “Since the DOT is unwilling to exercise its responsibility under the law, Congress must take the lead and must insist that they promulgate comprehensive school bus safety standards within six months.”
The School Bus Safety Amendments of 1974 were signed into law on October 27th of that year. They were supposed to bring those standards into effect no later than the same date in 1976.
According to Kunen in his book, Ford were ready to build the chassis to those standards, with the fuel tank guard, in plenty of time, with a “functional build” of the Ford B700 produced on May 20th 1976.
But a bill was passed delaying the standards’ effective date to the 1st of April 1977, so the frames continued to be produced as they were before, up until the very last moment possible. They would meet it on the date mandated, and not a moment earlier.
The accident bus was constructed to those prior standards, with no fuel tank guard installed – and that was perfectly legal. Because the bus – or, at least, the body of it – had been built before the date that those standards became effective. By just eight days.
The bus itself, in its entirety, wouldn’t be completed until June the 28th, 1977.
The chassis actually had the holes needed to attach the fuel tank guard, but that was an “optional extra” at the time it was bought. Since school boards have always had to look closely at their budgets, the likelihood of any of them finding cash for “optional extras” was slim. Kunen also points out that sales managers involved in the Kentucky school bus supply chain had actually sent out memos telling their purchasers that prices would rise for orders after April 1st 1977, quoting one: “It certainly behooves your good customer to buy buses immediately because of the above extra requirements that will increase the cost.”
As for the emergency exits; kick-out windows had been avoided in school buses because of the danger of them popping out in a rollover accident, and ejecting passengers – this had been the primary cause of death in fatal school bus accidents. From 1973 another standard required a minimum force of 1,200 pounds to pop a bus window. But there were two-step options, which could be unlatched and pushed out, which would meet both those retention standards and the need for additional emergency exits.
The regulations for emergency exits on buses prior to 1977 had required that buses provide unobstructed openings for emergency exits totalling 67 square inches per seating position – for all buses except school buses. There was apparently no specification for school buses.
Manufacturers complained about the new requirement – that school buses should have either a single rear emergency door or two side emergency doors, each large enough for an object measuring 48 inches high, 24 inches wide and 24 inches deep to pass through. It would mean taking out or reducing the size of the back seats, but, they suggested, that would make no difference. The National School Transportation Association wrote: “There is no reason to have a large space for exiting when the aisle to the back of the bus is only 12 inches wide and will serve only as a funnel. Only one person can exit the emergency door at a time.”
Because of all this, the families of those killed and injured in the Carrollton bus crash began civil litigation against the manufacturers, including Ford and the Sheller-Globe Corporation, who owned the Superior Coach Company who completed the bus’s construction.
Most of the families quickly accepted a settlement, which was announced just seven weeks after the crash. Although the settlement terms were to be secret, Kunen wrote:
“According to sources close to the case, $750,000 was paid out for each of the twenty-four children killed, and much more than that for each of the three adults who died; $63,000 was paid to each uninjured or only slightly injured passenger; and payments varying with the severity of the injury to those more severely hurt. In addition, $1,920,000 was entrusted to Skeeters & Bennett as a fund to cover unforeseen future medical expenses of some of the more gravely injured survivors. Finally, as “a lasting monument” to the crash victims, Ford and Sheller-Globe agreed to jointly contribute $500,000 to an as yet undetermined fund to fight drunk driving. (The money ended up going to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.) The total settlement well exceeded $40 million.”
However, two of the families did not settle. The Nunnallees, who lost their ten year old daughter Patty, and the Fairs, who had lost their fourteen-year old daughter Shannon.
They continued with their cases because they were determined that the safety of school buses should not be forgotten. Many commentators on the case – and some of the victims’ family members – were already focusing on the fact that it was America’s worst drunk driving accident in history, and ignoring the flaws in the design of the bus. Yes, it was old, but there were still many similar buses on the roads. At one point, the Nunnallees offered to settle for a single dollar if Ford would commit to making all the extant buses safe. Money, after all, wouldn’t bring their daughter back. Janey and Larry Fair bought a bus just like the one Shannon and her friends had died in, as an exemplar for research.
The case came before Judge William R. Dunn on February 10th, 1992, with a veritable parade of expert witnesses. At the start, both families settled with Sheller-Globe for $1.3 million, but continued to fight Ford and Larry Mahoney. They had lost interest in fighting Sheller-Globe because the conglomerate was no longer involved in the construction of school buses.
Eventually, on March the 6th, the Fairs and the Nunnallees came to a settlement whereby Ford would admit no wrongdoing, but would pay each family either $3million or $5million – the amount to be decided by Dunn. A month later, the judge issued his opinion, choosing the higher number and thus making it clear that, in his opinion, the company had indeed been in the wrong.
Although the suit brought by the Fairs and the Nunnallees failed to convince Ford that they had to do something about school bus safety, there were improvements. Shortly after the accident, the state of Kentucky began offering free safety inspections for privately owned buses like that used by the Radcliff First Assembly of God Church. The state would also eventually introduce requirements for nine emergency exits on school buses – more than in any other state. They also require a cage for the fuel tank, a stronger frame, extra seat padding, flame-retardant seats and floors, a fuel system that will slow leaks, and other safety features.
Many other state, federal and local agencies also tightened their safety standards.
A number of the victims and family members now advocate against drunk driving; Karolyn Nunnallee and Janey Fair have both been prominent members of MADD – Mothers Against Drunk Driving – and some survivors frequently speak at schools about their experiences.
The site of the accident is marked by simple green signs on each side of the highway, and a black marble memorial stands in North Hardin Memorial Gardens Cemetery.
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Sources, References and Further Reading
This book is also available online via the Internet Archive.
Talk given by one of the survivors
Drunk driver silent about Carrollton bus crash despite survivors’ pleas – Courier Journal
Her husband died in nation’s worst drunk-driving crash. Her son was next. – Lexington Herald Leader
Carey Cummins: A Survivor – Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors