Effects of Fort Knox Families' Tragedy Remain Two Decades Later (Commentary)
May 15, 2008
I remember the weekend as if it were just last week, not 20 years ago.
It was an unusually warm spring for Kentucky, and the weather was perfect. The sky was clear. The sun shone hot. The temperature rose into the upper 80s. The day was perfect for all forms of recreation. It was May 14, 1988, a fateful day when two very different types of recreation crashed in a violent, unforgettable, and life-changing way.
A church group of 67 young teen-agers and chaperones from Radcliff, Ky., chose to visit a southern Ohio theme park for thrill rides, water rides, and picnicking. Most in the group were military family members from Fort Knox.
Larry Mahoney, a northern Kentucky native, set out for another kind of recreation, a day of drinking that ended with him driving his pickup the wrong way on Interstate 71 in Carroll County, Kentucky. Then, he drove his pickup truck head on into the former school bus carrying the church group. The bus burst into flames immediately as the collision ruptured the bus' fuel tank.
At 10:55 p.m. that still-warm night, the nation experienced its worst drunk driving accident. Lives were shattered. Hearts broken.
And you probably remember trips like this. Chaperones sit up front, then the youngest kids and girls with the oldest boys in the back of the bus. The violence of the crash, the fire, and the darkness all took its toll as the kids tried to escape out the back of the bus. One teenage boy using a baseball bat broke windows on the bus to pull kids to safety. Passersby on the interstate pulled over to help. But, twenty-seven people were killed, most were children and many were Fort Knox dependents.
Back in Radcliff, parents waited nervously as the night got later and later and the bus did not arrive back home with their children. As a parent now, I shudder at the thought of such a vigil.
My phone began ringing early Sunday morning. I should have been at church but took the opportunity of the warm, dry weather to stain the deck behind my house. Sticky with deck stain, I ignored the phone. But then that strange feeling hit. Something was wrong and I picked it up.
"Turn on the TV," said the NCO from Knox's emergency operations center. The first reports of the crash were coming in. "They're ours."
The days ahead became a whirlwind of sadness and grief.
I didn't lose any loved ones on that trip, but I knew many who did. As the deputy public affairs officer of Fort Knox, I set up shop at the church itself to provide support to the family members. It was big news across the country. About 100 different news organizations converged on Radcliffe in the next few days, all clamoring for access to the families and personal experiences of the event.
How the families handled this crisis over the years, I don't really know. I do know several family members of victims became active leaders of Mothers against Drunk Driving and that they made a difference with drunken driving laws in many states. I also know that one of the boys that survived the crash is now an Army combat medic, saving lives himself.
Mahoney, the drunk driver, suffered only minor injuries from the drunken crash. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison after a conviction of 27 counts of second-degree manslaughter, 16 counts of second-degree assault and 27 counts of wanton endangerment. Sadly, and with an ironic twist, that family lost a loved one to a drunk driver a few years later.
The crash site on Interstate 71 is marked with a highway sign erected by the state. There is also a memorial in Radcliff that was built to honor the victims for the first year anniversary. I keep a picture of the burnt bus on my office wall as just a small dedication to the many lives uselessly lost and those changed forever by a drunk driver out for a good time.
<i>Robert DiMichele is public affairs officer for the <a href="http://aec.army.mil">U.S. Army Environmental Command</a>, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. He was deputy public affairs officer for Fort Knox, Ky., when the accident took place.</i>