CARROLLTON, Ky. – The Assembly of God Church group – 63 youths and four adults – were happy and tired as they rode a school bus home from a day of fun at Kings Island. It was 10:55 p.m. Some were asleep. Others couldn't wait to tell their family and friends about the great day they had.
No cell phones, no Twitter on May 14, 1988.
They never saw the pickup truck coming right at them. They never had a chance.
Three decades later, there's still no getting over the shock of the wrong-way crash and the fire that swept through the bus, killing 24 youths and three adults on I-71 about halfway between Cincinnati and Louisville.
These videos from WCPO newscasts tell the story of the first 48 hours – from the heroic motorists who stopped to rescue some of the teens from the flames, to one teen's faith that saved him, to shocking death-penalty charges against the drunken driver, to the grief that rocked a small, deeply-religious Kentucky community.
More video from the 25th anniversary gathering of survivors and family tell the aftermath.
Saturday Night: The Crash
A drunken driver drove north in the southbound lanes and hit the bus from small-town Radcliff, Kentucky, causing the worst DUI crash in U.S. history. The fire from the ruptured gas tank blocked the front door, so the back door was the only way out (although one petite female chaperone managed to squeeze through a window). Forty people got out; 34 of them were injured.
Two truckers said they stopped and pulled nine teens out of the back door before the flames and toxic fumes engulfed it. Twenty-seven others died inside. The dead schoolkids were mainly 13 and 14, though they ranged in age from 10 to 17. A dozen of the injured suffered severe burns. Some were disfigured for life.
The bodies were so badly burned that a tarp was placed over the burned-out bus before it was hauled to the National Guard armory, where a morgue was set up. Officials asked sobbing parents for dental records. It was the only way to identify the remains.
Sunday: The Horrible Awakening
Families of the dead grieved and the horrifying news spread through Radcliff, population 24,000. About 750 members gathered at The Assembly of God Church to pray and comfort each other. "I lost a lot of friends. My friend lost his whole entire family," said one girl. "I think I'm going to wake up and it'll all be over, but it's not." The church lost nearly two dozen from its youth group as well as an associated pastor, youth pastor and pianist. "I just told them that we had to hold on, we could not give up," the pastor said.
Sunday: Jesus Saved Me
Juan Holt, 17, told a WCPO reporter how he escaped. "I fell and people was on me. There were a couple of dead people on me," Holt said. "And then all the smoke just went into my mouth. I said, 'Jesus.'" The thought of Jesus comforted him, he said, and he was able to get out the back door.
Sunday: Prosecutor Seeks Death Penalty
The Carroll County prosecutor charged the drunken driver, 34-year-old Larry Mahoney of nearby Owen County, with 27 counts of capital murder. He said he wanted Mahoney executed in the electric chair. Mahoney, who had one previous DUI, tested 0.24 percent – more than twice the legal limit (0.10) at the time, police said.
Sunday: NTSB Officials Examine Bus Wreckage
The 11-year-old converted school bus would not have passed federal safety guidelines established in 1977. That's because the Ford bus was built a few weeks before the law was passed and grandfathered in. Most significantly, it did not have a cage around the gas tank, and when it crashed, the tank moved 2 feet and opened a 3-inch gash on the side. That led to the explosion and fire on the bus. The fire also reignited safety concerns over the use of gas fuel in buses at a time when commercial buses had to use diesel engines because diesel fuel is less combustible. An expert said none of the victims would have died from the crash if there hadn't been a fire.
At Radcliff Middle School, which lost 16 in the bus crash, students got a lesson in life and death. "They could have made a lot of their life," said one student, "and the man who took it, I hope he lives so he can live with all this guilt." Extra counselors were brought in to try to get students to talk about their feelings. But at North Hardin High School, students mostly mourned three of their classmates in silence, according to one student. "Nobody's really saying anything," she said. "You walk down the hall and you see the hurt, but nobody says anything."
Larry Mahoney didn't die in the electric chair. A jury convicted him on lesser manslaughter charges and he was sentenced to 16 years at the Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange, outside Louisville. He was released five years early on good behavior on Sept. 1, 1999, and sought obscurity in a home on an unmarked rural road in Owen County. He refused to talk to the media.
As tragedies tend to do, the Carrollton bus crash led to new safety regulations. School buses changed from gas to diesel and added emergency windows and fire-resistant flooring and seats
Five years ago, survivors and family members gathered at North Hardin High School to mark the 25th anniversary and to comfort each other. Before a service in the school gym, they hugged outide around a granite monument that lists the names of the victims and those who survived.
Karolyn Nunnallee, whose 10-year-old daughter Patty was the youngest victim in the crash, was there. She started a personal crusade against drunken driving and became president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. MADD successfully pushed for stricter DUI laws across the nation. Kentucky enacted tougher laws in 1991.
"We celebrate the positives that have come out of this crash," Nunnallee said at the gathering in Radcliff in 2013. "That's what keeps all of us going. I can't speak for everyone, but knowing that you're doing something that's making a difference, that's making positive change, yes, it is good."
Jason Booher, a 13-year-old on the bus, became a successful high school basketball coach in Kentucky. Booher won a state title at Shelby Valley and had a fine four-year run at Holmes in Covington before retiring after the 2013 season. He said he wanted more time with his family and to speak out about drinking and driving. He also planned to write a book about his experiences.
After surviving the bus crash, Booher said he had never tasted alcohol or tried drugs.
"That one night, and that one day, really molded me in how I live the rest of my life," he said. "When things like that happen in your life, it makes you grow up faster than you probably should."
"I'm going to make sure that their deaths save, hopefully, thousands of people," he said.