10 years after crash, key flaw
in school buses remains

A closer look by Charles Wolfe

FRANKFORT - The National Transportation Safety Board once recommended putting the fuel tank in a different spot on a school bus.

The traditional location, on the right side of the bus, just behind the front door, posed an unnecessary fire hazard, the board said in a report.

That was in 1972.

Twenty-six years later - and 10 years after 27 people died in a fire caused by a ruptured fuel tank in the infamous Carrollton bus disaster - school bus fuel tanks are required to have cages around them. But the location of the tanks is pretty much where it always has been.

Lawrence Fair, whose daughter Shannon was killed at Carrollton, considers it the greatest disappointment of a safe-bus crusade he has waged with wife Janey since the crash.

He and others who advocate relocation of the fuel tank have had ''almost zero success,'' Fair said in an interview.

''I think the resistance is primarily coming from manufacturers,'' he said.

If the manufacturers reposition the fuel tank, that's admitting the current position is unsafe, Fair contended.

In theory, that would expose them to years of liability, based on about 12 years as the average life of a bus in a school district, Fair said.

The bus that crashed and burned at Carrollton was on a 1977 Ford chassis. A Radcliff church, First Assembly of God, had bought the bus as surplus property from Meade County schools.

The fuel tank was torn from its mounts and punctured in the collision with a pickup truck driven by Larry Mahoney, who was drunk and on the wrong side of Interstate 71.

The tank did not have a cage, which was optional equipment at the time. Cages now are required by federal law, but Fair said that may be overrated. Cages prevent tanks from being crushed but not from being punctured, he said.

The state fire marshal's office reached the same conclusion in its report on the crash, issued in July 1988.

''Given the location of the puncture with respect to where the cage would have been, it is doubtful . . . that a protective cage would have prevented the puncture of this particular tank in this particular incident,'' the report said.

Aside from the fuel tank, the Carrollton disaster led to a number of changes in Kentucky school buses and the training of the people who drive them.

The state's design specifications now include flame-retardant seats, emergency pushout windows, roof hatches and left-side emergency doors. All are aimed at one thing: more time for people to get out, because time often is the big enemy in a bus calamity.

''In fire or water, it's simply a function of how quickly you can get off the bus,'' Fair said. ''The idea is to buy time. . . . Three minutes would have made how much difference in Carrollton?''

A 10-year observance of the Carrollton crash was to be held today in Louisville. It was arranged by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The national president of MADD is Karolyn Nunnallee, whose 10-year-old daughter Patty was the youngest of those killed at Carrollton. Janey Fair is a national vice president.

Lawrence Fair said a 10-year observance is one way to keep bus-safety and drunken-driving issues before the public.

For example, he said, if school bud gets get tight, parents might demand that buses continue to have flame retardant seats and for spending to be cut somewhere else.

Not all states require flame retardant seats, so Fair said Kentucky's practice doesn't imply a national success.

Fair said he tries to be careful in what he says about buses.

''The safest way for a child to get to school is on a school bus. So we're not saying school buses are unsafe. We're saying school buses could be made a little safer at a small cost.''

Charles Wolfe is a writer for The Associated Press.

Publication date: 05-14-98

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