Carrollton Bus Crash resulted in school bus design changes

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By Sharon Graves

Landmark News Service

Twenty years ago today Carrollton became famous for a tragic set of events that actually had its’ beginning at least twenty years earlier.

What is known as “the Carrollton bus crash” happened at approximately 10:55 p.m. on that Saturday night as a church bus load of teenagers were returning from a day at Kings Island. Owen County resident, Larry Mahoney, was driving northbound in the southbound lane of I-71 with a blood alcohol level of 0.24.

As Mahoney’s black pickup truck crashed head-on into the oncoming bus, there were no immediate injuries. Many of the children were sleeping and as the crash jostled them around, many thought they had hit a deer, according to James S. Kunen in his book “Reckless Disregard”.

Unfortunately what happened next, as the gas tank was punctured and its contents caught fire, was the cause of all the carnage that early summer night. As a full tank of gas purchased minutes earlier fueled the fire, the seat cushions began to melt emitting toxic fumes.

Since April 1,1977, a steel cage has been required to enclose fuel tanks on busses. Before that, the fuel tank was hung outside the rail of the frame where it was vulnerable in just such a crash. The bus in the crash was manufactured by Ford, nine days earlier on March 23, with the fuel tank outside the frame next to the front door.

The bus was pushed up against the guardrail by Mahoney’s truck blocking that exit and puncturing the fuel tank. The aisle was only 18 inches wide, but the two seats in the back row stuck out further than the others, leaving an opening of only12 inches at the emergency exit.

The bus carried 67 passengers, coolers, backpacks and prizes won playing games at Kings Island, and in the dark and confusion of the night, that 12 inches was not enough room to get everyone out before tragedy struck.

Kunen’s book follows the occupants on the bus from the morning of the crash and throughout the trials. Kunen goes back in time as he researched the way Ford Motor Company, Sheller-Globe Corporation and the U.S. government procrastinated and postponed changes in bus design requested as early as 1966.

Ford Motor Company manufactured the chassis of the bus, and Sheller-Globe built the bus on the chassis. Each company knew of the defect according to Kunen, but failed to move quickly to change the design due to cost considerations.

Crucial changes have been made in bus design since the devastating crash in 1988, but they probably wouldn’t have had the parents of Shannon Fair, Janey and Larry, accepted the settlement offered by Ford and Sheller-Globe. They fought, along with Jim and Jeanne Nunnallee, parents of another victim, Patricia, to make sure that no other children had to die the way their daughters died, Kunen explains in his book.

Lisa Gross, spokesperson of the Kentucky Department of Education, said that five major changes have been made in bus specifications since the crash: 1. Bus seats are required to be made of flame retardant materials, 2. There must be emergency push-out window exits in the middle of each side of the bus, 3. Engines must be diesel instead of gasoline powered, 4. There must be an emergency roof hatch, 5. Buses must have a left side emergency door in the middle. Rear emergency exits also must remain in buses.

With these changes, buses now have at least six ways to exit in an emergency, whereas the bus involved in the crash only had two.

The Kentucky Department of Education requires that there not be anything in the aisles of a bus. If another bus is needed to carry gear, then another bus must be sent. Coolers were blocking the rear exit that prevented many of the children from getting out alive.

Gross also explained that since the 1988 crash, schools regularly train and have drills in preparation for emergencies such as the crash on I-71.

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