I wasn’t there, but it felt like I was. It wasn’t my family or friends who were killed and injured 25 years ago in a bus crash in Carroll County, Ky., but recently attending the premiere of “Impact: After the Crash,” a documentary about the deadliest drunk driving crash in U.S. history, made me feel like I had lost family of my own.
Representing the NTSB, I sat in a packed auditorium in Hardin County, Ky. Beside me were crash survivors, victims’ families and members of the community that were devastated by the events of a quarter-century ago. First Lady of Kentucky Jane Beshear gave inspirational opening remarks recognizing the victims, survivors and significance of the event and spoke about how we must never forget, and continue to learn from, the tragedy.
The 82-minute documentary took survivors and the audience back to that fateful night in 1988. On the evening of May 14th, a school bus carrying 67 people — nearly all of them children — was returning to Radcliff, Ky., from a church youth group field trip to an amusement park. While they were driving through Carroll County, a drunk driver on the wrong side of the road crashed into the bus head-on, killing 24 children, the bus driver and two adult chaperones. Thirty-four others were injured.
During the viewing there didn’t seem to be a dry eye in the house. The documentary told a powerful story of loss and healing through interviews with many of the crash survivors and victims’ family members, highlighting incredible stories of survival. Karolyn Nunnalle told the emotional story of losing her 10-year-old daughter, Patty, and her fight for bus safety and drunk-driving prevention after the crash. Lee Williams, who lost his wife and two daughters in the crash, shared how he was able to find love afterward. Story after story of survival and recovery were intertwined with news footage and photos from 25 years ago. The film brought home how a really bad decision by one driver, who chose to get behind the wheel impaired, could impact so many lives even 25 years later.
I met the documentary producer, Harold Dennis, a year ago when he participated in the NTSB forum Reaching Zero: Actions Needed to Eliminate Substance Impaired Driving. From the day I met him, I have been inspired by his remarkable recovery from the crash and his unbelievable courage. Harold sustained severe lung damage and third degree burns over 20 percent of his body, including his face and torso. He lost his best friend, Andy Marks, who was sitting right next to him on the bus. Despite this personal loss and his own disfigurements, in the years since the crash, Harold has made a huge success of his life: he was a walk-on star of the University of Kentucky football team, and won the national Arete Award for Courage in amateur sports. Yet, I believe the “Impact” film that Harold, his co-producers and directors created will be one of his life’s greatest accomplishments. For it tells a story that will “Impact” lives. It is difficult to believe that anyone would ever consider getting behind the wheel impaired after viewing this powerful film.
Don Karol is the NTSB’s Director of the Office of Highway Safety