10 years ago, 27 people died in a fiery crash
"Bus people" rebuild their lives

Sunday, May 10, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

RADCLIFF, Ky. -- It's strange what you'll recall later, after your life is destroyed. Lee Williams remembers the snacks he took to the car that morning. Doritos and Ruffles, in case the girls got hungry.

Jess Durrance and his wife, Kim, center, survived the Carrollton bus crash when they were 16 years old.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
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In his mind's eye, he can see them still.

Robin, 10, gives him a hug goodbye. She's thrilled, having volunteered her mother to chaperone the trip. Their 14-year-old, Kristen, is also going to Kings Island. She'll be meeting them at the church. It is 7:30 a.m. on May 14, 1988.

Mr. Williams tells his wife he loves her. The sun is coming up, and he watches them drive away. He sees Joy reach for her sunglasses. He sees Robin adjust her Walkman.

Was it 10 years ago, or just the other day?

Their car disappears from his sight.

Twenty-four hours later, Lee Williams will be in shock. There will be chaos, panic, children with ears and noses burned off. Along I-71 in Carrollton, 27 bodies will sit inside a charred school bus. "God," he will pray, "please let them be alive."

But at 7:30 a.m., he doesn't know any of this yet. He is merely a happy, lucky man, who loves his family very much.

He was always telling them so. In the months to come, he will cling fiercely to all those "I love yous," to the knowledge that he did his best as a dad.

And eventually, he will say those words again.

Tough, diverse people

The worst drunken-driving accident in U.S. history happened 10 years ago, around 11 p.m. on the day Mr. Williams said goodbye to his wife and child.

Larry Mahoney, driving a Toyota pickup on the wrong side of I-71, collided with a bus full of children from Radcliff First Assembly of God Church.

They were coming home from Kings Island. Mr. Mahoney was weaving around after a day of drinking.

The bus was old and its fuel tank unprotected. Fire broke out in the front, blocking the main exit, and spread quickly. Children piled up in the aisles, trying to get out.

In the end, 24 youngsters and three adults died, including Joy, Robin and Kristen Williams. Like many others, they had to be identified from dental records.

Forty people escaped, most out the back door. One adult managed to squeeze out a window.

A child's foot had to be amputated. About 10 others suffered disfiguring burns. For months afterwards, they were slathered with oil each morning, then wrapped in tight garments to minimize scarring.

The affected families got settlements from Ford Motor Co., which had made the bus chassis. The amount, never made public, reportedly totaled more than $35 million.

Hearts broken, a few couples divorced. Others moved from Kentucky. Today, a handful of families remain in Radcliff, a Fort Knox community about 30 miles south of Louisville.

Ten years after their defining moment, the "bus people" are as tough and diverse as the military town from which they came.

Karolyn Nunnallee, who lost her 10-year-old daughter, is now the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Harold Dennis, who suffered severe facial burns, graduated Saturday from the University of Kentucky. He played football for the Wildcats.

Conrad Garcia Jr., who kicked open the back door of the bus, is a soldier in Korea. He was sitting in Stephanie Howard's lap that night. She's in the Air Force now.

Allen Tennison, son of First Assembly's minister at the time, is getting a doctorate in theology. His evangelist parents are very proud.

Jennifer Scoville works at a Wal-Mart near Radcliff. Joe Percefull and Jason Booher are Kentucky schoolteachers. They sometimes tell students about their escape from the bus.

Trina Muller was badly burned on her hands and arms. Recently, she applied for a job selling vacuums, and the manager suggested she cover her wrinkly, discolored skin.

She told him where to go.

"My philosophy is: I am who I am. If you don't like it, it's your problem, not mine," says the 23-year-old, who lives in Illinois with her husband and two children.

Christy Pearman escaped with similar burns on her arms and shoulders. She remembers her dad, who was driving the bus, yelling for her to get out.

He died in the blaze. She went on to college and married Wayne Cox, her seatmate that night.

Remarkably, the bus produced three other weddings, including that of Kim Farmer and Jess Durrance. She fainted after inhaling smoke. He reached into the bus and pulled her out. They have two children now.

Another marriage came one year after the wreck.

Dotty Pearman lost her husband. Lee Williams lost his entire family. One day he decided to pick up his life and go on. He asked Mrs. Pearman to lunch. It lasted four hours.

At the hospital that first, horrible night, she had walked around in a daze. Without her husband, she kept saying, who would show her 11-year-old how to wear a tie?

Robbie Pearman graduated from Transylvania University recently. He did learn how to dress. Lee Williams taught him.

"I've been married to the two most wonderful men on earth," Dotty Williams says today.

She is buoyant, brimming with faith. The couple still attends First Assembly of God Church.

Outlooks change

Radcliff is a typical military town -- pawn shops, ethnic restaurants, furniture stores. With an Army base next door, it has a sketchy, transitional feel, as if half the population might move tomorrow. There are store clerks in Radcliff who know nothing about the crash. At several churches attended by survivors, it is rarely mentioned.

In the beginning, some people sought a reason. "It's God's will," they'd say, or, "Some good will come of it."

Not possible, says Micki Muller, whose daughter was burned. Twenty-seven lives were taken. Hundreds suffered. There wasn't any good in it, she says -- not then, not now, not ever.

Some people refuse to speak of their loss. The yearly memorials, they say, make it hard to move on. They wish reporters would stop calling.

"I'm more inclined to put it behind me," says David Voglund, a Radcliff insurance agent whose daughter died. "Every time I pick up the newspaper, in the local paper, I see something about it. If I could prevent that, I would."

If Mr. Voglund represents one extreme, Bill and Maddy Nichols represent another.

This is the 10th anniversary of the accident that claimed their only child. From here on out, they'll be carrying his memory alone. "With us, we feel if we could even keep one person from drinking and driving, and save one soul, we've accomplished something," says Mr. Nichols, who lives in Elizabethtown. "This is the only way our son can speak now, through us."

Billy was 17. The family had been small by choice; the Nicholses figured they could do more for just one child. After the crash, they changed their minds.

Dotty Williams lost her husband, bud driver John Pearman, in the crash. Lee Williams lost his wife, Joy, and daughters Kristen and Robin.
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They have three adopted children now. Matthew, 7, is a computer whiz who loves dinosaurs. John and Kristen are both 3.

The Nicholses' outlook has changed. Little things -- a child breaking a toy or scribbling on a wall -- don't matter anymore.

Mr. Nichols retired from the Army in 1990. Like some of the other fathers, he lost his zeal for the military after his child died. The couple's grief is still there. Certain sights -- a yellow school bus, a Batesville Casket truck -- bring it back.

But Maddy and Bill Nichols did find a way to heal.

After Billy's funeral, they went to his grave every day. Bitter, paralyzed with sadness, they came to see only one way out: forgiving Larry Mahoney.

They didn't want him released from jail -- far from it. Mr. Nichols still thinks his sentence was too light: about seven months for each victim. But on a personal level, he has forgiven the sin that cost him his son.

"It'll eat at you, and you can't do it," Mr. Nichols says. "You've got to let it go."

From tragedy, a union

Jess Durrance was Billy Nichols' best friend. He and his wife, the former Kim Farmer, attend Lifeline Assembly of God Church with the Nichols family.

They don't think about the accident much anymore. But it has shaped who they are today.

On May 14, 1988, Kim and Jess were not dating. Jess's dad was getting transferred to Europe; in a week, the family would be gone.

They were 16 years old. Wholesome church kids. At Kings Island that day, the boys had walked around mouthing, "I love juice," to tease the girls. Said silently, these words look like, "I love you," but of course the boys would never, ever say that.

Kim and Jess sat together on the ride home. When the crash came, they had a good shot at making it: They were only three rows from the back.

Jess jumped out. Kim fainted from the smoke. Neither remembers what happened next, only that Jess reached in, somehow, and pulled her out.

There were kids piled up everywhere, jumping over each other to escape. It was chaos. Jess doesn't know how he found Kim. He just did.

The Durrance family never moved to Europe. Jess' father retired instead, and they stayed in Radcliff to help the others.

Kim was in the hospital for a week. Jess came every day. Once, leaving her room, he looked back and mouthed those words again, the ones from before the crash, when they were just goofy kids.

Only this time, he added something.

"I don't mean juice," he said.

Six years later, they married.

Destruction of alcohol

In the hierarchy of personal loss, Lee Williams is a general. During Mr. Mahoney's trial, his testimony stood out -- not one child gone, but an entire family.

Today, he is extraordinarily deft at telling his story, at peeling away layers of pain. Underneath, there are messages.

Love your kids. Tell them before it's too late. Take keys from drunk people.

He talks about Joy, Kristen and Robin because it helps him, and he wants to help others. Again and again, through a ministry he formed in 1992, he recounts their last days.

In Muhlenberg County recently, Mr. Williams did this before a gym full of students anticipating their prom.

Kristen, he tells them, was wearing denim cut-offs and an Esprit backpack the morning she left. She always loved Esprit.

Another thing: Her hair had to be perfect. The day before the crash, he'd given her a hug goodbye -- she was going to spend the night with a friend -- and she'd said, "Dad, don't touch my hair!"

He tells, too, how Robin made sure she got on that bus, by convincing her mother to chaperone. Mr. Williams had taught his girls never to give up, and they had learned well.

The high school students are quiet, listening.

"Keep this in mind," he says. "I didn't drink, but alcohol destroyed my life."

Clinging to happiness

At their home in Radcliff, the Williamses display all the pictures. Dotty's first husband, John Robert Pearman.

Kristen, Robin and Joy.

As the 10th anniversary nears, reporters keep coming by, asking questions and looking at the photos. There is a tiredness around Lee Williams' eyes sometimes -- a glimmer of sadness.

Then it passes. He has another life now, another family to love. "I just refuse to be robbed again," he says. "I'm not going to lose my happiness."

Sometimes he and Dotty, who sat next to his first wife in choir practice, joke about the big reunion. They'll be standing at the pearly gates and Dotty will make Lee go ahead, so he can do the explaining. But Mr. Williams suspects his girls already know.

He pictures Robin among the cloud of witnesses, quizzing newcomers from Radcliff.

"Did you know my daddy?" she asks.

"Why sure," comes the reply. "Your daddy's doing fine." And that's it right there: the miracle of May 14, 1988.

Lee Williams is doing fine.

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