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Carrollton: One night, one action doesn't define town

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By Jeff D'Alessio

CARROLLTON — You can find many of the characteristics of Carrollton in most towns across Kentucky and around the country.

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Off Interstate 71 at exit 44, motorists are greeted by Taco Bell, Burger King and McDonald’s restaurants. Drive downtown along U.S. 227 and you pass a Subway, a few banks, the Family Worship Center and a Wal-Mart.

Along the streets near the Ohio River, you can find a few residents on their front porches on a spring day and a man mowing his lawn after a few days of rain.

Downtown, there are park benches along many streets with small businesses dotting the landscape.

“We are small town America,” says Rhonda Riley, executive director of the Carrollton Tourism Center.

A town of about 4,000 people in a county of around 10,000, Carrollton forever is linked to the deadliest drunken driving crash in the United States.

On a Saturday night — 25 years ago Tuesday — 24 children and three adults on a return trip from King’s Island, to Radcliff First Assembly of God, were killed when a pickup truck going the wrong way on I-71 slammed into the bus, triggering a deadly fire.

Forty people on the bus survived. So did Larry Mahoney, convicted of DUI once previously, who drove the pickup into the bus while drunk. Mahoney was from nearby Owen County.

The towns of Radcliff and Carrollton are separated by about 90 miles. They are joined by one fateful night that has scarred both communities.

“There is a lot of stigma, a lot of hard feelings,” said Carroll County Coroner David Wilhoite, who worked in emergency services at the time of the wreck. “Carrollton is the county seat so it ended up with the title of the Carrollton Bus Wreck. I would say some people are tired of hearing about Carrollton being part of it. It happened closer to English than Carrollton.”

The crash happened a mile-and-a-half inside the county line and four miles outside of Carrollton.

“Whenever you go to some places, it becomes what you are known for,” Riley said. “I was in Florida and somebody asked me where I was from and I told them and their response was, ‘Wasn’t there a bad bus crash there?’ We’re known for what happened that night and it’s unfortunate.

“It was a horrible thing,” Riley said. “It’s tough any time it involves children. It was such a horrific crash.”

Many in the community have moved on and prefer not to talk about the crash. Some are angry this town, once known for its tobacco warehouses and now for General Butler State Park and North American Stainless, is even mentioned with the bus crash, Wilhoite said.

“It could have happened anywhere,” said Doris Schmitzle outside Kroger last week. “It wasn’t caused by people here, but it was here and I know it was terrible. I really can’t imagine.”

One of the 40 survivors, Harold Dennis, was invited to speak to a Rotary Club in Carrollton and was surprised at the reception he received from community leaders.

“It was very welcoming,” he said. “The majority of the community I think feels like it has a black cloud hanging over it.”

Dennis said he spoke about the documentary, “IMPACT: After the Crash,” and many in attendance wondered how the town would be depicted in the film.

Some in town don’t want to discuss the events and how Carrollton played a role in that night. Essentially, the only link to the tragedy is that it happened within the county boundaries.

“There were a lot of people from here who helped a lot of people from Radcliff that night and after it happened,” Riley said. “There were a lot of people who did a lot of good things.”

Two phone messages to Carrollton Mayor Gene McMurry seeking comment for this story went unreturned.

Riley hopes the town’s association with the bus crash ends and said what happened 25 years ago is by no means a reflection of the people in Carroll County.

“I don’t know if we will ever get past this as long as there are families who lost loved ones,” Riley said.

Jeff D’Alessio can be reached at (270) 505-1757 or jdalessio@thenewsenterprise.com.