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I have to admit, it wasn’t until I moved here just over 11 years ago that I learned anything about the church bus crash on May 14, 1988.
At the time, I was a very young reporter in Fairfield County, Conn. I didn’t even own a TV, which wasn’t an issue because most nights I had to cover meetings or events. I didn’t watch the national news very often, and of course this was long before the Internet. If something happened someplace other than the towns where I worked, I didn’t know about it.
I do remember that Mothers Against Drunk Driving suddenly came to the forefront and that we did stories about the local chapter and the movement to stop drunken driving.
About a year after I started my job as editor of The News-Democrat, the 15-year anniversary rolled around and that’s when I started researching the crash. I wanted to do a story, but found it difficult getting anyone to talk about it.
At first, I didn’t understand why the topic was off-limits. Over time, though, it became clear to me: Two communities were scarred by the tragedy, but attention was focused mostly on Radcliff, where the victims and their families all lived.
Carrollton and Carroll County are forever linked to this tragedy because this is where it occurred. Residents here were the first responders, eyewitnesses to the immediate aftermath – the horrific injuries of the survivors and the unimaginable manner in which 27 people perished.
Then there was the investigation and the ensuing trial of Larry Mahoney, who caused the crash by driving while intoxicated on the wrong side of the interstate, followed by the lawsuits against Ford Motor Co., which built school buses that they knew were unsafe.
And, of course, every five years or so, there are the anniversary stories that reopen the wounds all over again.
And now, a documentary.
While the people of Radcliff had each other to lean on – and received the support of an entire nation while they mourned – no one thought to lend support to the people here who suffered the loss of people they’d never met and likely would never know.
Knowing all of this, I’ve been apprehensive of the film, “Impact: The Aftermath, The Story of the 1988 Carrollton Kentucky Bus Crash,” ever since I’d first heard of the project.
I wondered how Carrollton and its people would be depicted and worried about how the film would portray Mahoney.
I hoped this would be a film that would shine a positive light on a very dark chapter of our local history, but feared that our culture of sensationalism would overpower anything good that might come of it.
Nothing pleases me more than to tell you that this is probably one of the best documentaries I have seen. Ever.
This film tells the story, from beginning to end, of what happened and how those who survived have gone on to find strength, hope and courage to live happy and productive lives. It is not graphic, but it’s very, very honest.
Most importantly, it is fair. There are some survivors who still carry bad feelings for Mahoney … but most of them say they have forgiven him forhis role in this tragedy. And the film makes a clear, strong statement about the fact that while Mahoney caused the accident, it was the poor design of the bus that resulted in the deaths that occurred that night.
One of the survivors in the film said it best: “He was a country boy who made a bad choice.”
And there is no animosity toward Carrollton or its people. In fact, if there’s one flaw in this film, I believe it’s that the filmmakers fail to address the impact this tragedy had on our community. Once again, Carrollton is just the location, and no one is there to acknowledge the suffering that occurred here, too.
But that is my only criticism.
If you are on the fence about seeing this film, don’t be. Go see it. Especially if you were in any way involved.
I know this really belongs to the people of Radcliff. But my hope is that the director and producers will bring the film here to Carrollton for a public showing. I believe it would be very cathartic and would finally give something back to a community that suffered quietly on the sidelines of the worst drunken-driving accident in U.S. history.
Phyllis McLaughlin is special sections coordinator at The News-Democrat.