The 27 lives lost in the deadliest drunk driving crash in U.S. history.

The 27 lives lost in the deadliest drunk driving crash in U.S. history. Those who survived still carry the scars.

 

By Helen Witty

I can almost picture that day 32 years ago at King’s Island amusement park just across the Kentucky border in Mason, Ohio. Summer in the air. The distant shrieks of delighted children, the smell of fried food, the lure of carnival games and fast rides and a new rollercoaster called the Vortex making loops against the sky.

The happy exhaustion of the end of a day like that for 63 youth and four adults as they boarded a church activity bus for a three-hour ride home to Radcliff, Kentucky.

And then the unfathomable way it all ended on Interstate 71 just before 11 p.m. on May 14, 1988, when a wrong-way pickup truck driver with a blood alcohol concentration three times today’s legal limit crashed into that bus head-on just after it had stopped for fuel.

Twenty-seven people – 24 of them children – died in what remains the deadliest drunk driving crash in U.S. history. The impact of the pickup punctured the bus’s fuel tank and blocked the front door, killing those who could not escape in darkness and fire and confusion. Thirty-four more were injured, their lives changed by scars both visible and invisible.

Karolyn Nunnallee and daughter Patty.

Karolyn Nunnallee and daughter Patty.

The horrific crash shocked a country that just then was undergoing a cultural shift in the way it viewed drinking and driving, and what happened that night would shape lives and laws for decades to come. Survivors and family members of victims took up the mantle of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a grassroots organization not yet a decade old that had already played an invaluable role in that change.

Former MADD National President Karolyn Nunnallee, who lost her daughter, Patty, in the bus crash, has dedicated her life to ending this crime. As difficult as it has been to live without Patty, Karolyn has said, all those who survived must carry the horror of that night in their memories.

I met one of those survivors last year during a visit to Kentucky. To hear Quinton Higgins recall the crash – the screams of the children and the blackness of the smoke and the hand that pulled him from death – is to remember why we fight so hard to end this. It is to remember why we do what we do.

Quinton was 15 when he found himself trapped in the burning church bus. For years he didn’t want to talk about it, until he met a MADD Kentucky victim advocate. Today, he drives an old Ford school bus like the one he nearly died in. Taped to the backs of the seats are the names and photographs of those who died following the day spent at King’s Island. Painted on the outside of the bus are the words “27 reasons not to drink and drive: May 14, 1988.”

Quinton Higgins, survivor of the deadliest drunk driving crash in US history.

Quinton Higgins, survivor of the deadliest drunk driving crash in US history.

Quinton drives the memorial to speaking engagements, where he tells his story and warns of the dangers of drinking and driving. I’ll never forget walking through that bus, seeing the burn scars on his hands and hearing him talk about his narrow escape.

The wrong-way drunk driver who killed 27 people and forever changed countless more was a repeat offender who admitted to drinking at a bar and at a friend’s house that night. Police also found a 12-pack of beer in his truck, still cold, with several cans missing. He served 10 years and 11 months in prison, less than five months for every person he killed.

I am grateful that through the efforts of MADD and people like Karolyn and Quinton, we’ve made immense progress in the last 32 years, reducing the number of lives lost to drunk driving by 44 percent through stronger laws, increased law enforcement and a change in the way we view drinking and driving. Still, this crime claimed nearly 400,000 lives and injured millions more since 1988, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, including more than 10,000 in 2018.

Today, I honor each of the precious lives lost and all those permanently altered by a drunk driver 32 years ago. It is for you, and for every life changed by this preventable crime, that we continue to fight for a day when there are No More Victims.

Helen Witty is National President of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.