Roads safer after tragic Carrollton bus crash

By Michael Collins, Post Frankfort Bureau

LOUISVILLE - There were tears.

Karolyn Nunnallee wept for her 10-year-old daughter Patty, whose tragic death in the Carrollton bus crash left such a void in her life that she wondered how she'd ever go on.

Janey Fair wept for her 14-year-old daughter Shannon, who she remembers every time she sees a rosebud. Shannon loved rosebuds and the spring. Now, those symbols of life sprouting anew are painful reminders of how Shannon's own life was cut short.

Still, for the 150 people who paused on a bright, sunny morning to mark the 10th anniversary of the crash, Thursday was not a day for grief.

It was a day for proving that wounds heal and that triumph can spring from tragedy. It was also a day for hope - for gaining new inspiration in the fight against drunken driving and for believing that the battle can be won.

''We have suffered a lot in the last 10 years,'' said Christy Pearman Cox, a survivor of the crash. ''We've had a lot of scars and emotional scars. It was a tragedy, but we have come out victorious.''

It was 10 years ago Thursday that Ms. Cox, who was just 14 at the time, and a group from the First Assembly of God in Radcliff were returning home from an outing at Kings Island near Cincinnati when tragedy struck.

A drunken driver heading the wrong way on Interstate 71 slammed into their church bus about six miles south of Carrollton. The bus erupted into flames and blocked the front door, sending passengers scrambling for the only other exit - the rear emergency door.

Twenty-four children and three adults could not escape and died in the inferno. Thirty others were injured in what remains the nation's worst drunken-driving crash.

At Thursday's memorial, the names of the victims were read over a loud speaker as 27 white birds were released into the air as ''a symbol of hope and peace on our roadways.'' The birds circled over the crowd as a choir sang a song called ''Angels Among Us.''

A group of students active in the fight against drunken driving called for a moment of silence in the nation's schools to remember victims of the tragedy.

Crowds gathered around a memorial display decorated with color photos of the smiling victims and survivors. Just a few feet away, grizzly black-and-white pictures of the charred bus and copies of newspaper articles pasted on a board were stark reminders of the tragedy's toll.

The teen-agers who survived the crash are now young adults, and many have children of their own. Some still wear scars of that fiery night in the crinkled flesh of their hands and faces. Others carry emotional scars, wounds that aren't as visible but are every bit as painful.

A great deal of the service, called a ''Reunion of Hope,'' was devoted to the fight against drunken driving. Larry Mahoney, who was driving the pickup, had a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit when he slammed into the bus.

The accident 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.

Preliminary statistics released Thursday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that in 1997 the percentage of traffic fatalities involving alcohol use dropped to an all-time low.

Last year, an estimated 16,520 people were killed in alcohol-related traffic accidents, representing 39.3 percent of all highway fatalities. In 1988, the year of the crash, there were 23,626 deaths attributed to alcohol-related crashes, accounting for about 50 percent of all highway fatalities.

Still, there's much work to be done, said Ms. Nunnallee, who began working with Mother's Against Drunk Driving shortly after the crash and is now the group's national president.

In its ongoing war against drunken driving, MADD, which organized the memorial, has joined forces with the Partners in Crime coalition to work toward reducing the number of people killed by drunken drivers to 11,000 a year by the year 2005.

To reach that goal, existing laws must be enforced, Ms. Nunnallee said. States must pass tougher laws, such as revocation of driver's licenses and lowering the DUI blood-alcohol threshold from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent, she said.

A bill that would have established a 0.08 percent threshold in Kentucky passed the state House of Representatives earlier this year but died in the Senate amid heavy lobbying by trial attorneys and the restaurant industry.

Sara McKinney, president of MADD's Louisville metro chapter, said drunken-driving opponents will be back before the General Assembly in two years pushing for the same law.

Ms. Fair, who has become a national lobbyist for MADD, said the Carrollton tragedy illustrated how everyone is vulnerable to the crime of drunken driving.

Publication date: 05-15-98

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