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Heroes Emerge In Fiery Crash That Killed 27

May 16, 1988

CARROLLTON, Ky. (AP) _ Two 16-year-olds helped pull their friends from a bus that burst into a fireball after it collided head-on with a pickup truck on an interstate highway, killing 27 in one of the nation’s deadliest bus crashes.

″They were just laying down in the back door, stacked up on top of each other, and no one could get out ’cause they all fell down on top of each other,″ said Larry Flowers, who escaped from the bus and helped evacuate it with Jamie Hardesty. ″I grabbed their arms and pulled.″

A pickup truck going the wrong way on southbound Interstate 71 late Saturday plowed into the right front side of the bus, which was filled mostly with teen-agers from the Assembly of God Church in Radcliff returning home from an amusement park outing near Cincinnati, police said.

This morning, five National Transportation Safety Board investigators set to work. One investigator went to the crash site, and the probers also were interviewing witnesses and examining the wreckage from the crash, which was brought to a National Guard armory here.

The NTSB also requested to examine blood samples taken from the driver of the truck, and to study both his and the bus driver’s driving records, said Alan Pollock, an NTSB spokesman.

The investigators’ preliminary findings were expected to be discussed at a news conference this evening.

Meanwhile, in another part of the armory building, other experts continued to examine the badly burned bodies of the victims, comparing dental records and other clues in an effort to provide positive identifications.

Nine of the 40 hurt sustained critical injuries; four people were seriously injured, including the driver of the pickup truck, who was alone.

Survivors said that as flames erupted in the bus’ front, screaming passengers rushed toward the rear emergency door.

″Everyone started screaming and hollering,″ said Hardesty, a high school sophomore. ″Everyone was trying to get off as fast as they could.″

A passing truck driver, Patrick Presley of Dallas, and an unidentified trucker, rushed to the bus and yanked the rear door open.

Hardesty was among the first to escape.

″I thought maybe if I broke out the windows I could help some of them get out or at least let some of the smoke out,″ he said. ″I busted windows hoping they could get out, but I don’t guess they could.″

″When I jumped off the bus, I saw him (Hardesty) carrying somebody and laid them down, and ran back up and was trying to get some more people,″ said 17-year-old Juan Holt.

″He ripped off my shirt, and he used it for bandages. ... He put ice on people. He was like a doctor.″

Jason Booher, 13, credited Hardesty with ″saving a lot.″ Hardesty pushed burning victims from the bus and Booher said he then rolled them in grass.

Holt said Hardesty and Allen Tennison, 15-year-old son of the church’s pastor, directed paramedics to those seriously injured.

The church held two special services Sunday.

The bus had been refueled with gasoline just before the accident, said Carroll County Coroner James Dunn. The fuel tank on the 1977 Ford school bus was on the right side, and ruptured upon impact, police said.

State Medical Examiner Dr. George Nichols met with about 60 family members in Carrollton and told them he did not want them to view the remains.

″The picture ... of their children in that room is not what they have in their memories or wallets,″ he said.

Nichols said 19 females and eight males were killed. Preliminary examinations of 22 bodies indicated the smoke inhalation as the cause of death, he said. He expected to finish the examinations today.

The victims apparently died trying to flee, and the body of the driver was found near the steering wheel with a fire extinguisher between his legs, Nichols said.

A woman’s body was found facing the front door, while the other bodies were headed toward the back of the bus.

As word of the accident spread, distraught relatives clutching dental and medical records arrived here Sunday to help identify the dead. Many came in a bus donated by Fort Knox, a military installation near Radcliff where most of the church members work, officials said.

Early Sunday, the hull of the bus - with bodies still inside - was moved to the National Guard armory in Carrollton, 75 miles northeast of Radcliff and 45 miles northeast of Louisville.

State Police Trooper Jim Mudd said it was not known how long or why the pickup was traveling the wrong way.

Its driver, 34-year-old Larry W. Mahoney, of Worthville, was listed in serious condition at Humana Hospital-University of Louisville.

What is believed to be the worst bus accident in U.S. history occurred Sept. 17, 1963, when a bus collided with a train near Salinas, Calif., killing 32 farm workers.

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