The Kentucky school bus crash and its aftermath

Monday Book Review

September 19, 1994|By Myron Becken

RECKLESS DISREGARD. BY JAMES S. KUNEN. SIMON & SCHUSTER. 380 PAGES. $23.

SCHOOL BUSES by their nature are neither comfortable nor safe. The typical school bus is uncomfortable because of the way it's assembled: It's a bus body plunked on top of a truck chassis. They're not as safe as they could be because everybody involved in their design, manufacture and sales -- and even the purchaser -- is more concerned with saving a few dollars than a few lives, this book shows.

A 10-year-old school bus purchased second-hand by a Radcliff, Ky., church had the standard two exits -- front and back doors. But, as in many bus crashes, that wasn't enough as the vehicle brought 63 children and three chaperones home from the Kings Island amusement park north of Cincinnati the night of May 14, 1988.

When a drunken driver, going north in the southbound lanes of Interstate 71, smashed into the bus, rupturing the gas tank and igniting the fuel, there was only one exit left, because school buses are built -- then and now -- with the gas tank right next to the front door.

The passengers tried to get to the rear door, moving down the standard 12-inch-wide aisle. One must have tripped, another fell on top, then another. Their bodies were found still stacked up. Others tried to avoid the pile by climbing over the seats. But many apparently weren't successful because the seats were -- and still can be -- made of highly flammable material.

Twenty-four children and the three chaperones were killed, none by the collision. Some of the survivors suffered horrible injuries. One already had had 49 operations when James S. Kunen wrote his book about the Carrollton, Ky., crash.

The drunken driver was relatively unhurt and became the focus of community anger. But the parents of two of the victims, Shannon Fair and Patty Nunnallee, thought there was more to it than that. Why should the crash have taken the toll it did, they wondered, and began to think about the design of the school bus as another major factor in their daughters' deaths.

A safety problem with the fuel tank, it turned out, had been well-known inside the industry. In fact, federal regulations were drawn up in the 1970s requiring that a metal guard be added to help prevent tanks from being punctured. However, the effective date had been repeatedly delayed by pleas from the bus builders.

After winning the delays, the bus builders chose to wait until the last moment before complying, even though they were geared up to change earlier. The bus chassis involved in the Kentucky crash was finished nine days before the effective date in 1977.

When the Ford Motor Co., the builder of the chassis, made a generous settlement offer to the crash survivors and the victims' families, only the Fairs and the Nunnallees refused to accept; they wanted Ford to admit guilt and to improve school bus safety.

Their path was not easy. It took almost four years to bring their case to trial, costing each family $800,000 in legal expenses and subjecting them to the delays and intimidations employed by the ethically unencumbered corporate lawyer and his bottom-line client to try to make them give up.

Mr. Kunen, who's also a lawyer, has a story with built-in impact, but he slips from being most effective when he tries to boost the tale, either through overwriting (". . . her fear on the wing like a pheasant from the brush") or when he violates his promise of being able to support all quotes and thought descriptions ("As the policeman's stern gaze chilled his back . . .").

He also hasn't organized the book for greatest impact and occasionally gets confused on secondary facts. But in the sum ** of his story, these flaws are minor.

The book's subtitle, "Corporate Greed, Government Indifference, and the Kentucky School Bus Crash," tells where Mr. Kunen stands and he does a good job of supporting this premise. In fact, he goes beyond to show the government's role was more than mere indifference.

The Nixon tapes detailed a 1971 Oval Office meeting in which Ford's two top executives, Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca, showed Ford values by pitching for a delay in another safety feature, air bags for cars.

Not that Nixon needed much convincing: ". . . The environmentalists and . . . the consumerism people . . . aren't one really damn bit interested in safety or clean air. What they're interested in is destroying the system."

One federal agency did seem concerned, the National Transportation Safety Board, though Mr. Kunen downplays its efforts.

Ford is clearly the story's villain, portrayed as having all the morals of an adding machine in building its buses and in responding to the victim's concerns.

But the Fairs and the Nunnallees also faced the hostility of their own community. They were not members of the church that had sponsored the trip, their daughters being among the guests on the bus.

"The prevailing opinion in Radcliff seemed to be that blaming Ford for selling a dangerous bus was the same as blaming the church for buying it," Mr. Kunen writes.

Another interesting aspect is the perceived role of God in the accident, especially since the trip was church-sponsored.

Some parents thanked God that their children were spared. But, less fortunate parents wondered, does this mean God chose not to save their children? They especially were troubled by the expressions from the church's minister, whose son survived.

Two years after the crash, the church, whose members had received more than $20 million in settlement money, bought another used bus. It was the same type as the one involved in the crash, because it was maybe a thousand dollars cheaper than a safer model.

Myron Beckenstein is an editor at The Sun.

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