The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

The Student News Site of Tarrant County College

The Collegian

Alcoholism in Society-20 years later: tales of survival, forgiveness

By Mark Bauer/se news editor

(Final part of a three-part series examining the ramifications of alcohol intemperance.)

Joe Percefull fell into the aisle after the initial crash and was thrown against the seat in front of him. The fire started instantaneously, and when Jim Slaughter made a last-minute dash for the back of the bus—Percefull was right behind him.

Maneuvering his way and leaping across the tops of the seats to avoid the build up of bodies in the aisle, Percefull made it to the back of the bus where the chaos was diminishing hope for escape.

In the beginning
Joe Percefull and his friends, like most boys their age, had crushes they would flirt with and try to impress. And a trip to an amusement park May 14, 1988, provided them with the opportunity to do just that.

When they went to the park that day, there were a total of five of them in their group—three boys and two girls—which meant one of the guys had to play the dreadful role of fifth wheel.

Percefull, less than a month away from turning 15, was invited by his best friend Josh Conyers to accompany the Kentucky church group on the day trip to Kings Island in neighboring Ohio. And as a testament to what a great guy he was, Percefull said, Conyers acted as odd-man-out, allowing him and buddy Jim Slaughter to sit with Mary Daniels and Shannon Fair on the rides throughout the day.

While Percefull said he does not remember much about the morning leading up to the accident, he does remember the grim details of the final minutes before impact as well as the agonizing days that followed. Such details as where he was sitting on the bus, the snack he purchased when they stopped at the gas station on the way home and who he was talking to as Larry Mahoney drunkenly maneuvered his truck head-on into the bus carrying 67 people have all been burned into his memory.

“I can remember details about the accident like it happened yesterday,” he said in a recent Collegian interview. “On the ride home, we stopped at a gas station just north of Carrollton. We bought gummy bears, which we proceeded to throw over our shoulders at people in the dark bus.”

Just before the accident, he was sitting in the third row behind the driver leaning into the aisle talking to Mary and Shannon, the two girls he and Jim had spent much of the afternoon with, when the bus suddenly careened and was violently halted by Mahoney’s vehicle.

When two paths collide
Not much is known of the Carroll county resident responsible for the worst drunken-driving-related accident in U.S. history, but from the reports given by friends and family about Larry Mahoney, he was a peaceful factory worker in the small town of Worthville. Shy, quiet and mostly keeping to himself, Mahoney—a repeat drunken driving offender—would pass the time in a local tavern sipping beer and shooting pool.

“He was quiet, never got drunk or wild. I think eventually he fell into the wrong crowd, and that led to his troubles and to the accident,” long-time family friend Forrest Osborne told the Cincinnati Enquirer.

But that fateful night in May, as he traveled the wrong direction along Interstate 71 after a night of drinking, his blood alcohol-content registered 0.24—more than twice Kentucky’s legal limit at the time.

But it was not the impact from the crash that took so many lives; it’s what happened only seconds afterward that proved so costly.

Ingredients for disaster
After the school bus was retired from 10 years of service, the First Assembly of God in Radcliff, Ky., purchased the bus in 1987 for occasions such as the trip to Kings Island.

The 1977 school bus chassis was designed by the Ford Motor Company, and during court deliberations, the faulty design of the unprotected gas tank was found partly to blame for the deadly crash.

When Mahoney plowed into the converted church bus, the right front end of his small pickup connected with the right front end of the bus—piercing the recently filled gas tank. Within seconds, it ignited a raging fire. The leather seat covers and polyurethane seats were fueling the fire, and the bus quickly filled with toxic smoke and unbearable heat.

The escape
Because of the fire and the damage sustained from the impact, the first means of escape, the main loading door, was inoperable. The only exit left was the emergency exit door in the rear of the bus, but the aisle was quickly log jammed with bodies desperately trying to escape the inferno.

“It was unbearably hot in a matter of seconds.  When I made it to the back, there was a pileup of kids at the door.  There was a small gap at the top of the pile, and I dove for it,” he said. “When I got my hands and arms out the door, I just pulled until I fell out with a bunch of other kids.”

In total, 24 children and teenagers and three adults died. The only adult to escape was a woman of small stature who was able to fit through one of the small windows and drop to safety. Mary, Shannon and Percefull’s best friend Josh didn’t make it out.

Scars: emotional and physical
Even though Percefull had successfully made it out of the bus alive, his fight for survival was far from over.

He had inhaled a considerable amount of the toxic smoke that had consumed the oxygen in the bus and, as a result, it scalded his lungs and caused his vocal cords to swell. He also sustained first, second and third degree burns on the left side of his body.

“The necklaces that I was wearing burned an imprint of the links on my neck,” he said.

Most of his physical scars have since healed, with the exception of his arm and elbow—they are still scarred, though not horribly.

After the accident, Percefull was placed on a ventilator for four days to prevent his windpipes from swelling shut.

But it was the emotional scars that ate at him. For a year, three to four times a week, Percefull would have the same recurring nightmare.

He dreamed that he was back on Kings Island begging everyone not to get on the bus.

“They laughed at me and wouldn’t listen, so I ended up getting on the bus with them,” he said. “It then flashed to [right before the] impact, and I knew what was getting ready to happen. Right before it did, I was crying and said goodbye to my friends; then we hit. At that moment, I would wake up.”

The next school year, Percefull saw a girl who bore a striking resemblance to Mary Daniels. Convinced Mary was alive, Percefull followed her around the school for a few days.

“The silly thing was that it ended up being her sister,” he said.

Since she was a couple of years older, Percefull did not know her.

“[She and Mary] looked exactly alike,” he said. “That was a weird experience because I was truly freaked out and convinced that Mary wasn’t dead.”

Finding the good in the bad
While it is hard to imagine any good coming out of such a horrific experience, Percefull said the greatest good that came from the accident sits outside the school where he teaches everyday.

“The busses that we have now are so safe, something like what happened to me almost couldn’t possibly happen today,” he said.

“Look at the [Minneapolis] bridge collapse; a school bus was in that, and all the kids walked away. The fact that no kid will ever have to endure what I did,” he said, “that is the greatest good that came from this accident.”

While he would never tell this to a person who just lost a family member, Percefull believes there is meaning behind every event—even death.

“People have to look for the purpose for death, just like they do for their lives. Death is a great motivator and sometimes it causes us to do things that we wouldn’t have done otherwise,” he said.

To date, Percefull is divorced, but recently remarried and has two boys, Reed, 8, and Aidan, 3. Since the accident, he has dedicated his life to teaching and working with young people.

“I try to find meaning for myself within the life that I have been given. In that way, the bus accident is really the single most life-shaping event in my 34 years,” he said.

When he was a teenager, Percefull said his friends wanted to track down Mahoney and kill him.

And why not? Mahoney’s actions were the catalyst for the pain countless families had to endure following that night on I-71.

But Percefull never felt that way; try as he did.

“When I testified at his trial, I remember trying to make eye contact with him—but he wouldn’t look at me,” he said.

Whenever Percefull speaks to children about the tragedy, he tells them, “People make choices. Sometimes they make horribly bad choices. Sometimes those horribly bad choices cost someone their life. Sometimes those horribly bad choices cost 27 someones their life.”

Still, Percefull does not consider Mahoney an evil person nor does he wish ill toward him. In fact, Percefull said he would like to meet him.

“He is a man who made a horribly bad choice. But as silly as it sounds, I do feel sorry for him,” he said. “He probably was and is a pretty decent man who made the worst choice of his life.”

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