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An anniversary, by definition, is the yearly occurrence of a past event.
For many, anniversaries are happy occasions. They are celebrated for marking important occasions in people’s lives. Couples celebrate relationship milestones by rejoicing in anniversaries of a first date, a first kiss or the day marital vows were taken.
In history, important events are noted by anniversaries. On July 4, Americans celebrate the anniversary of our country’s independence from Britain. On Nov. 9, people celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some people might even give July 20 special recognition noting each year it marks the anniversary of the first time man walked on the moon.
But on many occasions, anniversaries can note tragic events. Sept. 11 may be one of our most tragic anniversaries marking the day thousands of lives were lost on American soil.
In my home state of Kentucky, this past May 14 marked another tragic anniversary—the 20th anniversary of the most deadly bus disaster in the nation—the Carrollton bus crash.
I was a middle schooler on May 14, 1988—the day Larry Mahoney got in his pickup truck drunk and headed the wrong way on Interstate 71. Coming the right way on the road that night was a school bus full of children and their adult chaperones from a church not too far from the community where I grew up.
The group had a day adventure at an Ohio amusement park called Kings Island. The amusement park was just north of the Kentucky border and traveling there as a school group or church activity was a highlight for many of us who grew up in that region.
The night Mahoney made the decision to drink and drive, his truck crashed head-on into that bus full of kids, who were on their way home from their big day.
After impact, the bus erupted in flames and with the front door jammed shut all those inside were forced to fight their way to the rear exit. While some were able to get out, 27 people were trapped and ultimately died in the fire. Those who got out suffered serious physical injuries and unimaginable emotional scars.
Mahoney, the intoxicated driver who caused the crash, had only minor physical injuries, but at the age of 34, left himself with a lifetime of pain from the trauma he caused a church, countless families and friends and the greater Kentucky/Ohio region.
Mahoney served less than 11 years in prison on charges related to the crash. He has spent his time out of prison in relative obscurity, declining to talk about events of that night.
Not long after the wreck, I traveled the same route from my hometown to the amusement park aboard a bus on a school band trip. My mother was frightened, as were other parents—what was there to ensure it couldn’t happen again?
The reality was there were no assurances. The thought of children being safe aboard school buses was ripped from every parent who heard of the wreck.
When our school bus traveled past the wreck site, sadness and fear kept us quiet in our seats.
Thankfully, a number of drunk driving and school bus safety regulations were changed following the horrific crash, but the spot on the road still serves as a painful reminder of what happened there that night.
There has not been a time since then that I traveled on the road to Cincinnati, Ohio, when I haven’t thought about the young people and adults who died that day.
A sign at the site that says, “Site of fatal bus crash May 14, 1988.”
When my mom hugged me goodbye before my trip along I-71 after the wreck, I never imagined some 18 years later she too would become the victim of a driver who decided it was OK to have a few drinks and then drive home.
Like those aboard the bus, a marker on the side of the road now memorializes my mother. Those who know her remember the tragic events of that day every time they drive by.
But for those of us who have been affected by drunk driving, for those who know the sleepless nights and the unrelenting tears and anger, no anniversary is needed; no sign has to be posted.
There are always, wherever we go, reminders of the tragedy of drinking and driving.