The Carrollton School Bus Crash: Continuing to Heal 20 Years Later

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It was a moment that changed the lives of not only those on board the bus, but their loved ones waiting at home. Within seconds of Larry Mahoney’s Toyota pickup smashing into a school bus full of children returning from a church trip to a local amusement park, the gas tank ruptured and fire and black smoke engulfed the bus. When it was over, a total of 27 of the 67 passengers were dead, marking the Carrollton, Ky., school bus crash as the most deadly drunk driving crash in U.S. history.

After effects of the tragedy included both tougher state legislation on DUI limits (the blood alcohol content has changed from 0.10 to 0.08) and school bus construction.

“We added side emergency doors and changed to fire retardant materials on the seats and floors,” said Mike Roscoe, who became Kentucky’s state director in 1991 and dealt with many of the legislative after effects. “They also completely rewrote the driver training manual.”

“It greatly increased the communication between everyone,” added Sam Jackson, the assistant state director of transportation at the time of the crash.

Now, 20 years later, the survivors are continuing to heal, with some speaking out for the first time.

Never Giving Up

For Ciaran Madden, the crash ended her childhood and started a new period of her life, one in which she would learn an important life lesson.

“I always tell my kids that you can do anything, because if I didn’t believe that, I would have died. I would not have gotten out of that bus,” she said.

Madden, although a survivor, was badly scarred by the fire, leaving her with permanent reminders of that night. She also lost her best friend, Emily Thompson.

“The week before and the week of the anniversary takes a lot out of me emotionally,” said Madden, from her home in Rineyville, Ky., just 100 miles southwest of the original crash site. She had just roused her husband, a local school bus driver, out of bed before answering the phone.

This year was the first that Madden had chosen to address the media on the issue, an action that was partially caused by the recent arrest of a local high school principal for driving under the influence.

“It made me mad all over again how someone in our community, who is a role model to our children, can get busted drinking and driving, then basically get a slap on the wrist and be put back in the school system two days later.”

Madden has decided to start working with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) again, and is willing to take her cause to Congress if necessary.

“I hope through this accident and other accidents, people realize what damage drinking and driving can do.”

Inspiring Others

Harold Dennis shares this sentiment. Like Madden, Dennis was one of the kids winding down on the bus that night after a long day of fun. And like Madden, Dennis also carries the physical scars as well as emotional ones. He spent two months in the hospital following the crash with burns to his face, neck, left shoulder and arm.

“When you make the wrong choices, bad things can happen, even to good people,” said Dennis, who took time out his hectic schedule to speak about the crash and its lasting effects.

Aside from running a successful commercial construction and real estate development company in Lexington, Ky., Dennis has also been working on a film of his life for more than a decade.

“I want people to walk out of the theater feeling inspired; I want them to benefit from what I’ve been through.”

Dennis has been working with Daniel Smith, a history professor at the University of Kentucky and veteran filmmaker. Smith first heard of the story when Dennis was a student and gifted football player at UK. Although he had not yet received any money for the film, it was put on hiatus after Dennis almost lost his NCAA standing. A ruling by the organization stated he could not sign the contract while playing college football.

With Dennis’ college football days now behind him, “The Phoenix” is scheduled to start filming this September.

“Harold’s attitude is one of relentless hope and confidence; he never gives up, especially on himself, and is always looking forward toward a better life, rather than backward, worrying about mistakes or bad fortune,” said Smith, who also wrote the script. “Since I love stories about courage, Harold’s seemed an ideal way to give voice to how he turned a tragedy into remarkable recovery and personal growth.”

A Mother’s Courage

Karolyn Nunnallee lost an irreplaceable part of herself that night 20 years ago — her daughter Patty. The news of her death instantly shattered the life she knew.

“Someone else had taken over my life, they had killed my child, my life was topsy-turvey,” remembers Nunnallee. “I had just lost all sense of control.”

Two weeks after her daughter’s tragic death, Nunnallee walked into the office of the Hardin County chapter of MADD. It was there that she started to put some of the pieces of her life back together.

“I was given a shoebox with ribbons and membership applications. I felt like I was given the power to make change. I really thought that I would stop drunk driving in this country with the supplies in that little box. And by having that sense of control, by being able to take something horrible and turn it around to make a difference, I literally took my life back.”

Ten years later, Nunnallee became the national president for MADD. During her one-year term, MADD achieved two very important milestones: a presence in all 50 states and the nation’s lowest number of drunk driving fatalities.

“Safety is not an option. Every mode of transportation needs to be as safe as it can possibly be,” added Nunnallee.

Reprinted from the July 2008 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.