Thursday, May 15, 2008

On A May Night, Outside of Carrollton

Yesterday I saw many news stories remembering one of the worst tragedies to happen in our state.

Twenty years ago, a bus crashed on Interstate 71 outside of Carrollton, Kentucky. If you're from this area, you know the details; a drunk driver was driving north in the southbound lanes and hit a school bus carrying children and chaperones from a day at Kings Island back to Radcliff, south of Louisville. The gas tank ruptured, and few escaped uninjured from the inferno that followed. It was one of the deadliest bus accidents in our nation's history, and the deadliest drunk-driving accident.

Though the victims were from a different part of the state, the crash happened barely a half hour south of my hometown, and it was covered extensively by the Cincinnati news. I was 14 at the time; the same age as many of the victims. In the years following the disaster, I would occasionally meet someone from Hardin County at an academic event or competition; in getting-to-know-you icebreakers, another student would sometimes pick up on that person's hometown and ask if they knew anyone on that bus. The answer was usually, "Yes," and then it wouldn't be discussed further. The community's wounds would take a long time to heal.

If you know me, you know that from the time I was a small child until today I have a terrible fear of fire. I couldn't light my own Bunsen burner in chemistry class, and I have to look away or leave the room when someone starts a fire in a fireplace. My biggest fear is being in a fiery plane or car crash. The closeness of this accident, the ages of the victims, and the horrible circumstances surrounding their deaths hit me hard. To this day, when I chaperone a trip and find myself on a bus, I position myself as close as I can to an emergency exit and plan in my head how I would get out in the event of a crash or fire. I very nearly have panic attacks that I have to walk myself through. When I close my eyes and try to count to ten to calm down, I see the black and white picture from the paper the day after the Carrollton accident: a burnt-out bus that trapped its young victims inside.

When the driver of the truck that hit the bus was being sentenced, one of our stations somehow got a camera into the courtroom as the sentence was being read. It must have been summer, because I remember being alone in the house as the regularly scheduled programming was interrupted. The camera panned the courtroom to capture the reaction shots, and several of the survivors were in attendance. I remember one girl in particular, her entire face and one arm hidden by a beige compression bandage, with a tuft of hair showing beneath the burn garments. At one point she broke into sobs and her parents comforted her the best they could. I started crying, too, even though she was a stranger to me. I could only imagine her physical pain, her mental anguish, and the lifelong scars she would bear. And she was no older than I was. She had lost friends and nearly had the life burned out of her by a senseless mistake.

As a result of this crash, it is a lot safer to ride a bus. Gas tanks are protested by cages, more emergency exits have been installed, and the rubber and foam that make the seats must be flame-retardant and release less toxins when burned. In Kentucky, all buses must also run on diesel, which is less flammable. And yet just a couple of weeks ago, a Pendleton County (just to the south of us) teenager died when a dump truck struck his school bus one morning on a winding, dangerously narrow stretch of rural road. The bus did not catch fire, but the news of a young person's death in a school bus tragedy forced everyone to start thinking about Carrollton and the 20th anniversary and the many things we still need to do to make sure our children are safe when they ride the bus.

Every morning, I put the most precious thing I have on the bus and pray that the driver is alert, that the other cars they navigate past are driven by sober, careful men and women, and that, should the worst happen, someone will guide my daughter out and to safety. I calm myself with statistics that show she's safer on the bus than she would be riding with me. I know that someday, she will want to join a church or school group on a trip to Kings Island on a school bus, and I know that I will let her go. But it won't be easy.

When I go to Louisville for work or to visit friends, I pass the sign on I71 that marks the spot of the crash. I always say a little prayer.

For the parents, some of whom lost their only children, I pray that they have found the courage to keep living.

For the surviving victims, I pray that their wounds have healed and that they have found peace after the terror of that night.

For those that died, I pray that their suffering was short and that an angel guided them on their way.

For the driver, who served shockingly little time behind bars, I pray for forgiveness. If I were a parent of a victim or a survivors, I know I couldn't ever forget. But I hope that I would someday be able to forgive.

1 comment:

Robert K. said...

We moved to Radcliff in November of 1988, about 5 months after the accident. I therefore didn't know any of the victims, but I went to school with survivors and family of the victims. My best friend in high school lost his sister in the crash. That crash had an impact on the town that I can only compare to the continuing impact of the Murrah Building bombing on Oklahoma City. :(