It’s hard for a reporter when a source doesn’t want to talk.
Attempts to reach Larry Mahoney in recent weeks for an interview failed, which means the stories we have about the impact of the May 14, 1988, bus crash will be published with no quotes or information from the one man most people probably want to hear from.
Mahoney, of course, was the man who drove the pickup truck that crashed into the Radcliff church bus late on May 14, 1988. As anyone familiar with the Carroll County tragedy knows too well, the bus erupted in flames and 27 people were killed that night.
About the only thing people really know about this man, who was 34 years old at the time, was that he had been drinking excessively that night. We don’t know why, but he ended up driving northbound in the southbound lanes of the interstate at the time of the crash.
An Internet search on Google highlights news stories written about the man, but all are based on conversations with people who have known him. He has never accepted a request from the media for an interview.
In accounts of his life in prison, he is cited as a “model prisoner.” In a 15-year retrospective by the Cincinnati Enquirer, written after Mahoney’s release from prison, he was described by then-Owen County Judge-Executive Billy O’Banion as being “a model citizen” since his release.
All of this was confirmed by someone I spoke to recently who knew Mahoney during his incarceration, but asked not to be quoted.
When I take off my “reporter hat,” however, I can understand Mahoney’s reluctance to speak to the media about an event that certainly defines him for people throughout the country as the “drunken driver” in the nation’s worst alcohol-related crash.
And what is there, really, to say?
There likely is nothing he can say that will make any or all of the families of the victims – or the survivors – feel better. It’s more likely that anything he might say might only provoke more hard feelings for some.
There is little he can say that could enlighten the rest of us about what was happening in his mind when the accident occurred – news accounts of the trial indicate that he has absolutely no memory of it. People who know him and members of his family confirm he has no memory of it to this day.
Let’s face it: The majority of us could have been Larry Mahoney. At the time, drinking and driving were understood to be a bad combination, but the laws were lax and it never really was an issue.
I recall on our family vacations, dad would drink beer while driving us to our destinations. I know my mother did not approve, but we accepted it and did nothing to stop him.
And, when I get together to reminisce with my friends back home – the girls I used to go to bars with while home weekends and summers from college – our conversations often end with, “Wow, I can’t believe we used to do that.” Our biggest fear then wasn’t so much of being hurt or hurting others in an accident as it was that we might get caught by the cops.
Today, the word is out everywhere: Don’t drink and drive. It still occurs, but there are much more strict laws in place that, at the very least, may make more people think twice before getting behind the wheel after drinking.
There also have been great strides made to improve school buses safety, so that nothing like this could ever happen again.
And much of this awareness can be traced directly back to May 14, 1988.
Still, I really would like to hear from Mahoney. I want his side of the story; I want to hear from him what he has experienced since the accident, during his incarceration and since his release from prison.
What does he have to say to people who drive after drinking?
How does he cope with being at the center of something so monumentally tragic, so horrific and so life-changing for so many people?
How does he feel to be the one person almost everyone thinks of in the national debate on drunken-driving issues?
Perhaps Mahoney’s deafening silence, itself, is the answer to these questions.
It speaks loudly of a man who’s life will never be the same because of a horrendous mistake he made 20 years ago, and of a man who wants to live his life quietly, out of the spotlight and, I reckon, away from eyes that might judge him based on that mistake – an event that I’m sure he will regret until the end of his days.
Phyllis McLaughlin is editor of The News-Democrat in Carrollton, Ky.