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May 14 1988 Kentucky Bus Crash

In the past two or three weeks, something showed up in my feed (all of my search and reading on grief is probably what triggered the internet to place it in my line of vision) about the May 14, 1988 Kentucky Bus Crash. The 36th anniversary of this horrific and grief filled event is today, at the time of me writing this article.

Ever since I saw this reminder of the anniversary, this event has been heavily on my mind. And I decided to write a post about it. The reason why I have thought about it so much, I will explain further below. But this crash occurred when I was eight years old and living in Radcliff, Kentucky, where my dad was stationed at the time. And our family lived right next door to one of the families who had children on that bus. So, many memories came to mind from eight year old me and I found myself wanting to share what I remember, as well as inform others who don’t know what happened.

What Happened & When

A group of students in a church youth group had gone to the amusement park, King’s Island, in Ohio on May 14, 1988. It was a Saturday and this trip was one that had been planned for awhile, one that they were all very excited about. The kids were mostly teenage so there were many from middle school and a few from elementary and high schools.

This was a trip that had been taken before through the church and was a popular one. So popular that 67 people went that day and completely filled a school bus that was driven by the associate pastor. They were reported to have had an extremely fun filled day at King’s Island.

When they were on the way home, at about 11pm, they were hit nearly head on by a black pickup truck driving on the wrong side of the highway. The gas tank on the school bus, which they had filled up before traveling the rest of the way, was punctured. This caused the bus to catch on fire. The actual collision did not injure anyone, it was the resulting fire that wound up claiming 27 lives on the bus that night. Three of them were adults, the rest were kids.

Why it Happened

The driver of the black pickup truck was found to be intoxicated, well above the legal limit, which was why he was driving on the wrong side of the road. The driver had no memory of the crash and was only made aware of it after he woke up in the hospital afterwards.

The school bus itself was also part of the problem. It was an older bus that had been made before federal regulations had changed and so, it didn’t have a protected gas tank, the seats were made of flammable material, and there were not all those emergency exits you see on school buses now. The only way people could get out was through the back. With 67 people and a fire that consumed the bus in less than five minutes, most fates were determined by where people happened to sit that night. So, the survivors were mostly those who were in the rear of the bus. One adult, who was very small, managed to get out of one of the open windows. Others tried to open windows or kick them out unsuccessfully.

It’s because of this crash that school bus safety and design is more strict so that something this horrible doesn’t happen again.

This crash is one of the deadliest drunk driving related incidents in history. The driver served ten years in prison (was sentenced to 16 but let out early on good behavior) and apparently, now lives in obscurity not far from the crash site.

What I Remember About It

As I mentioned before, I was eight years old when this school bus crash occurred. And we lived next door to one of the families who had children on that bus. I will not reveal the names out of privacy for them and their grief. But we knew the family very well. I, personally, was not really friends with the children who were on the bus because they were much older than me, they went to the middle school and high school, and I was still in elementary school. So, too much of an age gap to be good friends or hang out together. However, I used to go next door and play with their younger sibling, who was around my age, all the time. I walked right past the older siblings frequently, so I knew who they were and what they looked like.

Right after this crash occurred, the news was all over Radcliff and all over schools everywhere. It was all anyone was talking about. When I first heard about it, I honestly didn’t believe it. Or maybe I didn’t want to believe it. It didn’t make any sense to my eight year old mind. How could anyone go spend the day, the best day ever in fact, at an amusement park, and then die that same day? No, that was not possible. How could such a horrible thing be possible?

I first heard about it through older kids who rode my own bus and others in my neighborhood. My school bus happened to share a route with kids from Radcliff Middle School, so they were talking about it the most. I could never be sure if the older kids were telling anyone the truth about anything, especially to little kids. But when I went home, my parents were talking about it, too. My mother was extremely upset because she frequently stopped by just to chat with our neighbor. She was telling me that two of the kids lived next door and one of them didn’t make off the bus.

Hearing my mother confirm it filled me with absolute horror. Now, it wasn’t just a story I heard from some rowdy middle schoolers. Now, I realized that I actually knew a person who had died on that bus. I walked past them all the time, I was in their house many times and it never occurred to me that one innocent, ordinary Saturday, they would be gone. Just like that. I can recall my mother and I going by the neighbor’s house afterwards to offer comfort.

I was haunted by the memories of this for a long time. Especially, because of it being related to drunk driving. My own aunt was hit head on by a drunk driver when I was around four years old and it wound up injuring her for life while he walked away from it with minor ones. Some of these bus crash victims were also injured for life. My own aunt’s accident was a very troubling time that I remember at such a young age and then to four years later be so close to another awful drunk driving related crash. Her accident was such a bad crash, they didn’t know how she survived it. And what was more chilling was that I had begged to go home with my aunt that night but my mother wouldn’t let me go. If I had gone, I most certainly wouldn’t have survived if I had been in the car and that happened.

I realized this school bus crash still feels haunting. How could it not? To this day, I can’t think of the King’s Island amusement park and not remember that crash. I have never gone to King’s Island and I will never go there because of that memory. I remember deciding that when I was only eight! I recall that decision as clearly as if it had happened yesterday. And that’s just me. What about the actual people who lost their children, their family members? The grief they must have gone through and continue to go through must be staggering.

A Mobile Memory

One of the survivors, Quinton Higgins, purchased a school bus, exactly like the one that was in the crash, to use as a memorial to the twenty-seven people who lost their lives that night on May 14, 1988. He drives the bus around and talks to kids at school about what happened and how things like this can be prevented.

27 Reasons Not to Drink and Drive

The bus is not only a replica of the model used on the trip but Quinton has labeled each seat with each person and where they sat that night. I think this is a super powerful way in which someone has used creativity in order to provide some kind of significant healing and memoralize the 27 people who lost their lives that night, through no fault of their own. This is a continued healing journey for Quinton, himself, and for others.

Impact: After the Crash

Here is a documentary called Impact: After the Crash, on the May 14, 1988 Kentucky school bus crash. It was made in 2013, the year of their 25th anniversary. I watched the film and found it to be extremely well made and powerful.

Warning: Watching a film like this may trigger your own grief simply due to the level of sadness that it has. So, please don’t feel any pressure to watch it if you think it’s going to make your grief worse. I am only providing a link to it here because I wanted people to know that this event occurred, that I was somewhat close by to it, and that it shows Quinton and his mobile memorial, and how he, among others, has dealt with their grief. That part may be useful to others with grief because seeing how others have managed theirs sometimes provides some comfort in themselves.

Sources cited:

Hamrick, B. (2024, April 24). Survivor of 1988 carrollton bus crash delivers message to gallatin county students. WLWT.

Kunen, J. S. (1990, January 8). Drunk driver Larry Mahoney gets 16 years for the Kentucky bus crash that claimed 27 lives. Peoplemag.

Crowley, P. (n.d.). Drunken driver lives in obscurity.

Press, Associated. “Today in History, May 14, 1988: 27 People, Mostly Teens, Killed in Carrollton Bus Crash.” The Enquirer, May 14, 2021.

Yetter, Deborah. “Survivors Still in Agony over Carrollton School Bus Crash That Horrified a Nation.” Journal, May 14, 2020.

News-Enterprise, JEFF D’ALESSIO The. “27 Reasons to Never Forget – May 14, 1988.” Enterprise, May 14, 2020.

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