My wife Brenda and I had planned to attend the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville on her birthday on Saturday, May 14, 1988, but our plans changed and we decided to stay in Louisville, Ky. that night and go on into Nashville the following morning.
“Would you like to stop at the Prime and Wine in Montgomery for a late dinner?” Brenda asked as we approached Cincinnati.
“Sure. That would be nice. Maybe they will light a few candles for your birthday,” I replied with a grin.
We finished dinner and continued into Kentucky, crossing over the Brent Spence Bridge in a light flow of traffic, marveling at the Cincinnati skyline and the shimmering water of the Ohio River.
“Do you mind if we take a break for a few minutes?” Brenda asked.
We were a few miles south of Florence, Ky. when I pulled into the rest area a mile or so north of the Interstate 71/ Interstate 75 split.
There were a few cars at the rest area, and I noticed a large church bus parked along the edge of the driveway near the spot where the semi-trucks usually park. The kids from the bus were throwing a baseball underneath the bright parking lot lights, and appeared to be enjoying themselves in the mild weather.
We were in no hurry since we were only driving so far as Louisville that night. So, we decided to sit for a while on one of the picnic tables under the lamp post to enjoy the sights and sounds.
“Looks like the kids are having fun,” I said to the driver.
“You would think they would be tired. We spent the entire day at Kings Island,” he laughed.
We watched the kids board the bus and pull into the southbound traffic of I-71.
Brenda and I continued on our trip. About 45 minutes later, we came around a sharp curve near Carrollton, Ky. and slowed down. As we rounded the spiraling bend, we approached countless blue and red flashing emergency lights.
“Looks like a bad accident,” I said.
We soon discovered it was more than a bad accident — it was a horrific catastrophe. A large vehicle was smoking, and it appeared a pick-up truck was sticking out of the front fender area of the larger vehicle.
“Brenda, that is the same church bus we saw at the rest area an hour ago,” I said. “Oh, no, it’s on fire!”
An officer flagged us on, and we continued our journey to a hotel in Louisville. Once inside our hotel room, we quickly turned on the local news and heard the terrible report from a grim-faced reporter.
The reporter, visibly shaken, said the former school bus, which was now a church bus, and a pickup truck driven by an impaired driver were involved in a head-on crash. Twenty-seven people (counting the driver) were fatally injured in the accident.
We later discovered the youth group was comprised of youngsters from North Hardin High School, James T. Alton Middle School, and Radcliff Middle School, along with four adults from the Assembly of God Church in Radcliff, Ky.
The reporter said the bus was driven by John Pearman, a part-time associate pastor of the church. (The gentleman I had spoken to at the rest area said he was the driver of the bus). They had spent the whole day and early evening at Kings Island, then boarded the bus and began traveling from Ohio back into Northern Kentucky toward Radcliff.
After about an hour, they had stopped to take a break. The Kentucky State Police reported at 10:55 p.m., while heading south on I-71 outside of Carrollton, Ky., the bus collided almost head-on with a black Toyota pickup truck which was traveling the wrong way (north in the southbound lanes) at a high rate of speed on a curved stretch of the highway.
The small truck was driven by Larry Wayne Mahoney, a 34-year-old factory worker who was intoxicated.
The police report said the right front of the pickup truck had struck the right front of the bus. Leaking gasoline from the punctured fuel tank was ignited, which caused a non-survivable flash fire condition.
Larry Mahoney, whose blood alcohol concentration was .24 the night of the crash, was arrested and charged with 27 counts of manslaughter. Mahoney was sentenced to 16 years of imprisonment after a jury trial in the Carroll Circuit Court.
Mahoney became a model prisoner, and his sentence was reduced for good behavior. Full of remorse, he declined the Kentucky Parole Board’s parole recommendation, and served out his sentence.
According to a published account in The Courier-Journal in Louisville, survivors of the crash and families of the victims said that they forgive Mahoney, who lives only a few miles from the crash site.
Death of a loved one is not something we ever get over, even after 30 years. But forgiveness helps us go on.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner.