Landmark News Service
After being badly burned in the deadliest alcohol-related crash in American history, Ciaran Madden was left scarred across her neck, back and arms. Picking up pieces from the tragedy tore her even deeper.
She decided to meet the man whose decision to drink and drive had shattered her world.
Madden decided to publicly share her story now — her pain and lessons learned — after two decades of silence. She hopes her story will save lives.
The mother of five, who until two years ago wouldn’t let her oldest son ride a school bus, whose gut fearfully turns at the sight of bus lights flashing in the dark, said she was compelled to speak out after John Hardin High School principal Alvin Garrison was charged last month with driving under the influence.
“He gets a slap on the wrist and is back in the school,” said Madden, who believes that, as a role model for young people, Garrison should have been fired or resigned.
She wants to see drinking and driving laws strengthened and hopes stories from the bus disaster can educate a new generation.
Before, she ducked as each anniversary approached; she dodged calls from reporters.
Rather than attend a public memorial for crash victims on a Friday night in 1998 she went with her father to a Garth Brooks concert.
There she could not escape the memories of friends who had suffered and friends she had lost. One song wrung 10 years of pain from her essence and her emotions poured forth.
“When he sung The Dance,” Madden said, “I bawled my eyes out.”
How could I have known you'd ever say goodbye
And now I'm glad I didn't know
The way it all would end; the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I'd of had to miss the dance
Madden is one of two known passengers on the First Assembly of God bus that burst into flames on May 14, 1988, killing 27 and injuring dozens more, to meet the man in person who caused the crash.
Katrina Henderson went with Madden on the first trip to the Kentucky State Reformatory in 1994 to meet Larry Mahoney. But, according to Madden, Henderson did not make a return trip.
“I wanted to see him,” Madden said. “I wanted to come face to face with the monster. ee I needed to know, ‘Hey, he’s an everyday guy who made a mistake.’”
Coming to terms face to face
Mahoney has lived in obscurity in his native Owen County since his release from prison in 1999. The rural, ridge-lined community sits near the Kentucky Speedway, a few miles off the interstate.
It’s a short drive from the crash site — and the large, green sign that reminds motorists of it to this day.
Mahoney has also repeatedly turned down media requests for interviews while in prison and since his release.
Some survivors of the bus disaster say they want to hear what Mahoney has to say.
Others want to tell him they forgive him in person, and still others impacted by the crash wonder what they would gain from such an encounter.
“I don’t know what Larry Mahoney would tell me that would mean anything to me,” said Jason Booher, a crash survivor who now lives in Pikeville.
Madden, a 20-year-old college student seeking to have questions answered and looking for closure, wrote Mahoney a letter in 1994 and began correspondence that would develop into a five-year friendship.
“When he first realized who the (first) letter was from his heart stopped,” Madden recalled.
Mahoney wrote back with remorse of his role in the tragedy.
“For the past six years now, I think about it day and night,” he wrote. “It’s never off my mind. It’s really hard to deal with and will always be that way for me.”
In letters, Mahoney offered her advice on life and boys, as well as telling her not to drink when she was a college student.
Madden visited him following arguments with her boyfriend or dad. Their bond strengthened beyond that of victim and culprit.
She recalls the first time she visited him as an emotional encounter of tears and embraces.
“As soon as I seen him he started crying,” Madden recalled. “I knew he was human because I’d seen him breakdown in the courtroom. ee I asked him, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ And he said, “I was gonna ask you the same thing.’ When I did (hug him), he just fell. There was a release and I could just feel it.”
Looking back and looking forward
The friendship between the two continued for five years, as Madden would drive to La Grange once or twice a month to visit. She has not spoken to him since he was released for good behavior in 1999.
“He was my out,” she said.
Madden is quick to point out that she still holds Mahoney responsible for killing her best friend, 13-year-old Emillie Thompson, with whom she went on the trip, as well as 26 others and leaving many more burned physically and emotionally.
“He chose to get behind the wheel and we paid for it,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone.
Not every visit to the prison was a civil one, Madden recalled.
“I could go up there and yell at him and be mad as hell,” she said. “And he took it. He had to take it.”
It took a long time for Madden to find forgiveness for the man who left her scarred.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t look in the mirror and see it,” she said.
Soon, her 17-year-old stepdaughter Mandy will get her driver’s license, and the aftermath of that painfully fateful May night brings new fears for Madden as her children grow up.
“It scares me,” she said of the disaster’s echoes that still affect her 20 years later.
But, through the fear, she found closure by facing her monster and finding he was as human as she.
“Larry Mahoney didn’t set out to kill 27 people,” she said.
She explained her compassion and forgiveness, feelings shared to varying degrees by many who lived through the tragedy.
“He’s a good guy,” Madden said. “He’s not the devil everybody thinks he is.”
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