Jason Booher, who was 13 when he survived the Carrollton bus crash, now speaks to students, churches and school bus drivers about the lessons learned from the tragedy.
A church group was on its way home from an amusement park in a retired school bus when disaster struck.
Larry Mahoney, driving a pickup truck with a blood alcohol content of 0.24, barreled head-on into the bus. Gasoline from the bus’ punctured fuel tank was ignited, and fire quickly engulfed the bus as the passengers scrambled to get through the rear emergency exit.
The front door was disabled by the crash and blocked by flames, and there were no other emergency exits on the vehicle — a former school bus that was built just a few days before the critical 1977 Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) for school buses went into effect.
Twenty-seven people — mostly teenagers — died in the inferno.
After that May 14, 1988, crash near Carrollton, Ky., numerous safety measures were implemented to improve school bus safety and to crack down on drunken driving. Among them: FMVSS 217 was revised to require that the total area of emergency exits be based on the designated seating capacity. Many states made concentrated efforts to phase out all pre-1977 buses. And Kentucky significantly enhanced its school bus safety specs and lowered its blood alcohol limit.
One of the survivors of the Carrollton crash was Jason Booher, who is now assistant principal and head boys basketball coach at Holmes High School in Covington, Ky. Twenty-five years after the tragedy, Booher spoke with SBF Executive Editor Thomas McMahon about his escape from the bus, the messages he shares with students and bus drivers, and the safety improvements made in the wake of the crash.
SBF: How old were you at the time of the Carrollton crash?
JASON BOOHER: I was 13.
Do you mind talking about what you experienced during the crash and how you were able to get out of the bus?
We had just filled up. Of course, it was an old bus. We had an unleaded fueled bus, and … we didn’t have a cage around the gas tank. We didn’t have flame retardant seats. The windows didn’t really even work. And it was a little window, so you couldn’t fit out of it anyways. There were no pop-out doors or pop-out tops [roof hatches]. And the back seats, they were full seats instead of half seats, so they covered a little bit of the emergency exit door.
Anyways, we had just filled up with unleaded gas and were driving down the interstate. There was joke telling, and it was loud on there — we were just having fun. Then Larry Mahoney, the drunk driver, hit us head-on. All of a sudden, we were slammed into the seat in front of us. He hit right there on the stairwell where you enter the bus. That’s where the gas tank was — right behind that. He hit that and punctured it, and it splashed gas all the way down the outside side of the bus, on the right side. That’s where I was sitting, against the window.
After we gathered ourselves there in the seat, there was a big ball of fire on the outside of the bus. Nowadays, you can’t have anyone sitting in the stairwell. Chuck, the youth director of the church that sponsored the trip, was sitting in the stairwell, so he stood up, and he was immediately engulfed in flames. He yelled out, “Lord, I’m coming home!” That was unbelievable, to witness something like that.
We had a couple of coolers in the aisle, which you can’t have nowadays. People were sitting on the coolers because it was so crowded on there. The maximum was 67 on the bus, and that’s how many we had on there, but you can’t put 67 teenagers on a bus that’s maxed out at 67.