How the Carrollton bus crash changed school bus safety

Published: May. 14, 2008 at 4:12 AM EDT|Updated: Aug. 6, 2014 at 8:48 PM EDT
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Karolyn Nunnallee
Karolyn Nunnallee
Janey Fair
Janey Fair
Harold Dennis
Harold Dennis

By Connie Leonard

LOUISVILLE (WAVE) -- May 14th, 2008 marks the 20th anniversary of the Carrollton bus crash. 27 people died -- most of them children -- when a drunk driver went the wrong way down Interstate 71 hitting the bus head-on. WAVE 3's Connie Leonard has brought you the stories of the survivors. Now, she takes at look at the sweeping changes the tragedy has inspired.

The pain and suffering endured after the Carrolton bus crash was nothing short of horrendous.

"I think the community of Radcliff has had no choice but, to heal," says Harold Dennis, a crash survivor.

In 20 years, it has been a slow process for many families of the 27 people killed in the fiery crash and for the survivors, who are forced to live with the physical and emotional scars. Many continue to give testimony about the dangers of drinking and driving, but no two women have done more to make your child's ride in a car or on a school bus safer than two mothers who lost daughters in the crash.

"Our friendship began out of tragedy," says Karolyn Nunnallee. Her 10-year-old daughter, Patty, was the youngest child to die in the crash. Janey Fair's 14-year-old daughter, Shannon, also died in the crash.

"She (Karolyn) came over and she was crying and she said, 'Oh Janey, they can't find their babies,'" said Janey.

Janey once told us the frantic rush of mothers trying to find out if their child was alive or dead motivated her to make sure no other mother had to go through what they did.

"She took a stand for each and every victim of that crash," said Karolyn.

Together, the two women and their husbands sued the bus manufacturer for its unprotected gas tanks calling it "a tinderbox with no easy way out."  They always maintained drunk driver Larry Mahoney was not solely responsible.

"We chose to fight because we knew an unsafe bus was what killed our children," Karolyn says.

Over the years, the two couples worked with government agencies to get higher safety standards. A protective cage now surrounds all fuel tanks,  there is an extra emergency side door, push out windows, an emergency roof hatch, flame retardant seats, mandatory training for bus drivers.

They also worked to lower the blood alcohol level to .08. Karolyn became a national president for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Janey became a vice president.

The fight for safety kept going for Janey Fair until May 9th, 2008 when she lost her battle with cancer. Janey's death was tough for crash survivor Harold Dennis. He had traveled to Capitol Hill with the two women to help their cause.

"Karolyn and Janey have literally changed the landscape on how people view drinking and driving," says Harold.

A Carrollton legacy and a best friend's promise that it is far from over.

"We will continue to fight the fight for our children and for Janey as well," said Karolyn.

Wednesday night at 8:30, survivors and members of the community will gather at the bus crash memorial in Radcliff to honor those who lost their lives in the tragedy.

Online Reporter:  Connie Leonard

Online Producer: Charles Gazaway