Jan 21, 2008

Reflections on the Carollton, Kentucky Bus Crash

Carrollton, Kentucky

Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery.
And today? Today is a gift. That's why we call it the present. 
—Babatunde Olatunji

I mentioned that I would be returning from this weekend's Women's Retreat with more Birthday frolic, and indeed that is my plan. However, this weekend created an undeniable alteration in my perspective of things and I feel compelled to share it with you. My Kentucky friends will immediately recognize the above photo and, no doubt, will have their own personal stories to tell.

No, I didn't travel to Kentucky for this retreat. I stayed in a cozy hotel in Costa Mesa, California, just southeast of where I reside. Actually, Kentucky came to me in the form of an energetic 66-year old, pint sized Evangelist by the name of Martha Tennison.

Martha Tennison is careful to address the above 1988 bus crash as a tragedy and not an accident. Since a drunk driver was responsible, she states it like this: "It's not an accident when someone decides to drink and drive."

Martha first became aware of this tragedy when she received a phone call and was told to report immediately to her church — First Assembly in Radcliff, Kentucky — where she and her husband, Don, pastor a lively congregation. She was to discover that the bus transporting 67 of their church members (63 children and 4 adults) from Kings Island Theme Park back to the church, had been in a serious accident. One of the occupants was her only child, a son by the name of Allen Tennison.

The Kentucky Guide wrote:

“The collision and subsequent fire involving a church bus at Carrollton, Kentucky on May 14, 1988 was one of the most disastrous bus accidents in United States history. About 11 PM on a Saturday night, a drunk driver traveling the wrong way on an interstate highway collided head-on with a school bus which was in use as a church bus. The initial crash was exacerbated by the bus catching fire and difficulties encountered by the occupants attempting to evacuate the crowded bus in the smoke and darkness.”

As other parents (unaware of the crash) were arriving at the church to pick up their children, Martha and Don learned that their son was one of 6 people who miraculously escaped this disaster unscathed. At the beginning of the bus trip, Allen had been sitting near the driver. However, he noticed a girl seated at the back of the bus who was new to the youth group. When no one appeared to be talking to her, he traded seats so that he could join her. Because of this move, he was strategically positioned for evacuation when the bus exploded in flames. Unfortunately, the person he traded with perished. The force of the collision and the ensuing fire had rendered the front exit unusable.

There were 27 people killed in this bus crash and 34 injured: some burned beyond recognition. I have provided links at the end of this post so that you may read more about this tragedy; however, I want to take a moment to express what inspired this post.

It was a tearful Retreat weekend as we attempted to fathom the pain of those who suffered incredible losses. Yet, there was a message entwined within the retelling of this tragedy that pierced my heart, especially as I reflect on my almost 50 years of life. This message was: no regrets.

Martha told the story of one mother who is still a prisoner of this accident. The woman lost her 13-year old son and has been unable to forgive herself due to the last frustrated conversation that took place between them. She had berated him for a number of things including that of not cleaning up his room. Afterwards, her son tidied up his room and then went to bed, crying himself to sleep. Due to her work schedule that week, she wasn't able to touch base with him before he boarded the bus on the mournful day of the crash. Later, when she walked into his "clean" room, she found a note taped to his mirror. It read something like this: "Dear Mom: I didn't clean my room because you told me so. I cleaned my room because I love you."

I speedily began to review the patterns and pressures that have frustrated me, heated discussions with my family, and the normal glitches in a day that I have often allowed to distract me from what really matters. I weighed the potential for regret in any one of these scenarios and I recognized the Grace that I have been given by my Heavenly Father.

Martha used the illustration of how we will extend to guests what we won't extend to our families. We can be as sweet as pie to a visitor who walks on our freshly waxed floor. A family member on the other hand might receive an intense scolding.

This weekend wasn't necessarily a revelation, but it did make me stop and take inventory. The bottom line is that we need to live each day as if it's our last: daily affirming those who are dear to us with love and life giving words. We aren't promised tomorrow. When it comes to our "famous last words," what gift will we leave?


  1. Hi KJ,

    Thank you for visiting my blog...your post is very touching ...and has me in tears! I usually do not think of myself as a Mother, but I am a step mom to three... and we (step moms) love and care for them just like a Mother would. Anyway, what an emotional retreat this must have been. Thanks for the post.

    I have entered you in my "A very bella Giveaway." I'm going to check out your giveaway now. You may be hearing from me again!

    ~ Jillian

  2. Hello Karen :)
    I am writing from a computer at Kinko's...mine is still sick.
    I do have thoughts on this! The drunk man ...I heard him talk once...he was so remorseful ...someone asked him to drink saying they'd keep him at their home if he wanted to drown his troubles...they didn't keep him there. I know I'd have trouble forgiving him if he'd killed one of my children. We surely aren't as forgiving as God is. I hope that lady you met gets peace. I'll pray for her! And I'm so guilty of treating my kids that way and being so easy on visitors...yep..

  3. I remember when that happened. I was numb for days. It was like I was having a bad dream and I was going to wake up but I did not.When my children were growing up I also was guilty of that.Her son had already forgiven her when he cleaned his room and left her the sweet note. He is smiling down from heaven saying Mom It Is Okay I was wrong and in your love for me you corrected me and I love you for all time!!! I pray and will pray for her that she finds peace and can find comfort in knowing that she raised such a fine youg man....Blessings to all...Mary

  4. KJ,
    This must have been a very moving retreat. As you said, it really makes us take time to think about what we have and how precious our loved ones are to us. I have lost half of my family of origin (mother, father and brother) in the last 18 months and truly appreciate my life and my family more and more each day.

  5. I've heard her speak as well at a Ladies Retreat. My good friends were Youth Pastor's (they are Sr. Pastors in CO. nowdays)in Lexington KY. when that accident happened. IT rocked us all very much.
    Very sad.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Be blessed,

  6. Wow, I didn't know about that one.
    So sad! You just never know.

  7. Ladies: The lady that is still in agony over this has actually held onto the note for 20 years and, if I understood correctly, calls the survivors on their Birthdays and on the crash anniversary to remind them of her regrets. She says something like, "You know what I'm holding."

    It is so tragic! Mahoney, the drunk driver, has moved to a backwoods area of Kentucky and he's married for the 3rd time. He has a grown son from a previous marriage. He doesn't want to talk to anyone about this event.

    Apparently, he was bitter that the prison system had stolen 11 years of his life. Wow! He had only gotten 16 years, which many felt was far too short.


  8. Just dropped by from Shabby's blog and I am deeply touched by your post. What a beautiful but oh so sad story... how precious those last words from her son must be to the mother of that boy. How sad that it sometimes takes a tragedy like this to remind us how precious our loved ones are.

  9. Note from KJ:

    This event took place on my Mom's Birthday. I will need to ask her, but I do believe that she has had a couple of tragic events happen on her Birthday...

  10. Wow...what a story...we went and read the newspaper moving and such a tribute to those families...thank you so much for sharing....

    Have a blessed day!

    smiles, kari & kijsa

  11. Sassafras & LuLuJanuary 27, 2008 at 10:06 PM

    Hi Karen,
    just getting responding back to you, you had visited my site right after your retreat. I surely see what you mean. Touching, heartwrenching, and really makes us all reflect on life and loved ones. When I read it, I could almost feel her pain and what I felt was a portion of what must be unbearable. I too will pray for her. God can use her and only he can free her enough from the bondage of grief to go on in this life. So that she can hold onto the promises of the "wiping away of our tears".
    blessings to you, and thanks for sharing!

  12. I can not imagine that pain this woman has carried all these years... I myself got into an argument with my dad and ran out and slammed the door... I didnt seem him alive after that as he died a week later... but I talked to him and know he forgave me... the bad part was a neigbor made me feel horrific by telling me my dad waited by the phone for me to call him before he left for vacation.... the guilt I carried after what she said lasted a very long time... I agree live every day as your last... you truly never know...



  13. Hi All, My little Sister was on That bus, Ciaran Foran. she suffered severe burns and mental trama, that I couldn't begin to understand. There is a memorial next week for the 20th anniv. my family and I will travel from Arkansas to be there with her and her family. I also want to add that through out the last 20 years there is nothing in my life I felt I couldn't face, because there was nothing that compared to what my sister and everyone on the bus and their familys faced and still face every day! I love you all, I draw my strength from My God, My sister and all of the hearts the accident touched.

  14. This is one of the sadest stories I've heard in a long time. This kind of thing makes you realize how precious the present is and that is really all we have (in this life). Twenty years ago, and reading it, I felt like it just happened yesterday.
    Hugs and blessings to you.

  15. I remember the bus crash well I never felt so numb after hearing all about it it rocked Me this is something that no one will ever forget it was just so awful so painful Larry knew better then to be behind the wheel in first place drinking & driveing bad idea for the life of Me I cant understand why someone would ever want to do that the one good thing that came out of it that Larry was remorseful but still he should have never been behind wheel in the first place Larry should been put in the familys shoes that he robbed let him see how it feels I know that I would have trouble forgiveing but I know its hard thing to do but if you ever going to have any peace you have to I know its a hard thing to do after someone has wronged you or what ever the case maybe Ive had to My self you keep carrying that anger it will eat you up inside lets keep all the the familys in prayer that lost loved ones Robert


Thanks for stopping by!
♫ Karen