30 years ago today: Nation’s deadliest drunken driving crash involved bus returning from Kings Island

27 killed, including 24 youth. Tragedy led to increased safety on buses and campaigns to fight drunken driving.

A church bus filled with passengers returning to Kentucky from a day of fun at Kings Island was involved in the nation's deadliest drunk driving crash 30 years ago today.

On May 14, 1988 the bus — filled with almost 60 people on a church outing — was headed home to Radcliff, Ky. along I-71 near Carrollton, Ky., when it collided with a drunk driver heading the wrong way in a pickup truck.

The front page of the Dayton Daily News featured a photo that captured the scene of a heavily damaged truck next to a scorched bus.

The impact caused the gas tank near the front door of the bus to burst into flames, prohibiting many from escaping the inferno. Twenty-four children and 3 adults were killed. One victim was found clutching a fire extinguisher.

The driver of the pickup, Larry Mahoney, a 34-year-old chemical worker, had been drinking beer at two places before getting behind the wheel, according to reports. At the time of the crash he registered a blood alcohol level of 0.24 percent, more than twice the legal limit in Kentucky, according to reports. He was sentenced to 16 years at the Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange, outside Louisville. He was released five years early on good behavior on Sept. 1, 1999, according to published reports.

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“On May 14, 1988, my daughter Patty paid the ultimate price because a repeat offender chose to drink and drive,” Karolyn Nunnallee, whose 10-year-old daughter Patty was the youngest killed in the crash, told the Northern Kentucky Tribune.

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“For the past 30 years, I have dedicated my life to stopping the violent crime of drunk driving, and it infuriates me that people are still being killed by this 100 percent preventable crime,” said Nunnallee, who served as the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving from 1998 to 1999.

The tragedy spurred a national awareness of school bus safety that brought new standards for quicker access to emergency efforts and fueled momentum to stop drunken driving.

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Stronger laws, increased law enforcement and a cultural shift in drunk driving tolerance has reduced the number of lives lost by 44 percent, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, but it is still the leading killer on the nation’s roads.

On Saturday, MADD marked the anniversary with a ceremony for all who were impacted by the Carrollton bus crash — including its survivors — in Radcliff.

“I look forward to being with those who survived the crash because we have a bond that will never be broken,” said Nunnallee. “As difficult as it has been to live without Patty, I cannot imagine how those kids have lived with the horror of that night forever in their memory.”

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