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Bus Safety Issues Dominate Testimony in Bus Crash

December 13, 1989

CARROLLTON, Ky. (AP) _ A fire official, testifying today at the trial of a man charged in a fiery bus crash that killed 27 people, said today that polyurethane foam seat cushions like those on the vehicle are deadly when burned.

Maj. William H. Lilly of the Lexington Fire Department took the stand for the defense at the murder trial of Larry Mahoney, 36, of Worthville, Ky., who was driving a pickup that smashed head-on with the church bus in May 1988.

Mahoney is charged with 27 counts of murder as well as drunken driving and other offenses. His attorneys, whose tactic has been to question the bus’ safety, said Mahoney may be called to tell his story.

Today, defense attorney William Summers asked Lilly if he was aware that the polyurethane foam seat cushions on the bus were hazardous when burned.

″Basically, I know that polyurethane foam is dangerous and will kill you, yes sir,″ Lilly replied.

Under cross examination by Assistant Attorney General Paul Richwalsky Jr., Lilly said the polyurethane cushions are commonly found in vehicles and hotel furniture. Richwalsky asked if the seat of fire trucks contain that material.

″Probably the same thing we’re talking about here,″ Lilly said.

In testimony Tuesday, Eugene Sober, a NASA fire safety engineer, said that many of the 24 youngsters and three adults killed in the fiery bus crash could have survived if the seats were fire resistant.

Also on the witness stand Tuesday, the 13th day of testimony, was former Ford Motor Co. Vice President Thomas Feaheny, who said existing technology could have prevented the fire.

Judge Charles Satterwhite did not permit Feaheny to provide details about technology he said might have prevented the fire.

But Feaheny told reporters during a recess that a plastic gas tank on the Radcliff First Assembly of God church bus would have prevented the fire and saved the lives of many of those who died.

He handed out copies of reports he provided to the National Transportation Safety Board during a 1988 hearing about the crash.

″What you see in these reports is the technology has existed for over 10 years that could have prevented this tragedy even in an accident of this sort,″ Feaheny said. ″And Ford Motor Co. has suppressed that technology and continues to do so to this date in a rather giant cover-up.″

Ford rejected the claim and said Feaheny, fired by the company in 1983 and since involved in a failed lawsuit against Ford executives, had an ax to grind.

″The suggestion that a plastic fuel tank would have prevented the Carrollton tragedy is gross speculation at best,″ said John Jelinek, a Ford spokesman. ″Mr. Feaheny’s assertion that Ford Motor Co. has suppressed plastic fuel tank technology is obviously contrary to the facts.″

In his cross-examination, prosecutor Paul Richwalsky Jr. sought to show that Feaheny lacked direct experience with Ford buses. Feaheny insisted he was qualified to discuss the issue based on 30 years in the automotive industry.

Sober, a fire safety expert, testified that the seat cushions were made of flexible polyurethane foam, and seat coverings of polychlorinated vinyl.

″Flexible polyurethane foam is the single largest class of fuels involved with fatal fires,″ he said.

When burned, the untreated foam emits hydrogen cyanide gas and the plastic emits hydrogen chloride gas, he said. Both can be fatal after a typical bus seat burns for just a few minutes, he said.

Foam treated with fire retardant was ″readily available″ to the automotive industry when the school bus was manufactured in 1977, he said, and seats treated with fire retardant would have saved lives in the crash.

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