Larry Mahoney, say his friends in little Worthville, Ky., was just about the nicest man you could ever hope to meet. They say he was a good father to his children of two broken marriages, a steady worker over at the M & T Chemicals plant, a country boy fond of fishing and coon hunting. He was sweet, they say; he was shy. "If you didn't meet him, you couldn't even imagine how quiet, how nice he was," says a friend.

Nor could you easily imagine this Larry Mahoney as the focus of a nation's rage, the man who is accused of recklessly driving his pickup into a bus on a Kentucky highway, killing 27. He is charged with being drunk at the time. But was he what we know as "a drinker"? In the old days, friends admit, he would occasionally put away "quite a bit." Then, in recent months, he had cut back to almost nothing because of stomach problems. "He didn't drink every day or nothing like that," says his uncle, Coleman Mahoney. Put it this way: Larry's drinking was nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps that is the real lesson behind the disaster that befell him on a Saturday night.

It happened on May 14. While millions of other Americans were getting home safely after a drink or two, or just a few more, Larry drove his pickup in the wrong direction down Interstate 71, where he crashed head-on into a school bus full of teenagers coming home from an amusement park. The bus burst into flames, and when Mahoney, 35, was lifted from the truck with a hole in his knee and a collapsed lung, his blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit.

The next day, as state troopers waited downstairs to question him and prosecutors prepared to charge him with murder, Larry's two sisters came to his hospital bed to tell him what he'd done. "Judy got on one side of the bed and I got on the other," said his younger sister, Debbie Daugherty, "and I told him, 'You know, Larry, you was in an accident, and 27's been killed.' He looked at me. The tube was in his mouth, and he tried to shake his head. He just squinted up his face, and a tear came outside his eye." Adds older sister Judy O'Donovan: "Tears were running down his cheek. He couldn't grasp it. He couldn't remember anything." When Mahoney did finally comprehend the enormity of his sisters' news, he had to be sedated: 27 people, mostly teenagers, had died because of Larry Mahoney, as nice a man as you would ever want to meet. Consider some statistics: In 1986, 23,987 people were killed in the United States in alcohol-related traffic accidents; that same year, in Kentucky, there were 44,484 arrests for driving while intoxicated and 359 alcohol-related traffic fatalities. But it was left to quiet Larry Mahoney to set a gruesome record as the deadliest good ole boy ever to pound back some beer and climb into a pickup. Mahoney is charged with causing the worst drunk-driving accident in the nation's history. The killings plunged this corner of rural Kentucky into the profoundest grief—not only for the 27 who died in the accident but also for the man who is charged with being responsible.

Five days after the accident, Larry Mahoney was taken to the Carroll County Courthouse. Police had told him they were driving him to another hospital, and as he hobbled unsteadily into court, his wrists and ankles shackled, Mahoney looked dazed, like an animal caught in a trap. There was a bandage on his arm and a cut on his face; he appeared to be in pain and his shoes were missing. Larry's mother, Mary, took one look at her son and burst into tears. Earlier that week, Mary had gone out and bought new clothes for Larry's court appearance: two new pairs of jeans, two shirts, two pairs of socks and a pair of tennis shoes. But somehow the shoes had been misplaced at the hospital. Seeing him in his stocking feet "just tore my mom to pieces," says Judy.

Seated near his court-appointed attorney, Mahoney pleaded not guilty to 27 counts of murder, for which the prosecutor, groping for some adequate expression of the state's shock and grief, had already demanded the death penalty. Outside the courtroom, there was a surprising show of support for Mahoney. "We're with you, Larry," came the shouts from a crowd of about 50 onlookers; the beginning of a smile crossed Mahoney's face.

In fact, this small north-central Kentucky community, 80 miles from Radcliff, where most of the crash victims lived, seemed all too quick to forgive, apparently because of a feeling that what happened to Larry Mahoney could happen to anyone. To condemn him, it may have seemed to the people of Worthville, would be to condemn some part of themselves. "Let he who is without sin," said Mahoney's friend Tom Butcher, "cast the first stone."

The second of four children of Mary and John Noble Mahoney, Larry grew up in a small, well-kept white house on a gravel road, high on a ridge overlooking the Kentucky River. Like most folks in the area, his parents made a living growing tobacco on contract. Larry's father, "Nobe," is amiable and hard-working. His mother, Mary, says a friend, is "as straight an arrow as God ever shot out of his bow." It was a close family and still is. Mary's good food and good humor have always made her house a gathering place, says Larry's younger brother, Charlie, 29, and even the married children find their way there several times a month.

A good-natured boy, Larry was never a scholar; his grades were poor, though he got A's for conduct. After his freshman year at high school, he dropped out, like many other local boys. Also, like many of the boys, he married young. Larry was only 19 when he married Janice King in 1972, just four months before their son, Tony, was born. In 1979 they divorced. Three years later Larry married Betty Davis, a teacher's aide, again after being told she was pregnant-proof, friends say, that Larry tries to "do the right thing."

Fate was harsh to Larry and Betty. Their daughter, Shawna, was born with spina bifida, a crippling spinal malformation, and had to be hospitalized five times during her first four months. Larry was a loving father to the child, and when the baby would wake up fretting, Betty recalls, he was the only one who could calm her. Though Betty and Larry divorced in 1987, he still manages to see the wheelchair-bound child at least once a week.

"They [the media] have painted him so cold, so hard, so very black, and he's not like that," said Betty, who is clearly still fond of her ex. "He loves his kids dearly and they love him." Betty also insists that Larry was not a heavy drinker. "In the 10 years I've known him, I don't think I've ever seen him drunk," she says.

But Betty does admit that Larry tended to "keep things to himself." And court records show that there were times when Larry was not nice or quiet. In 1980, three months after his divorce from Janice, he pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge. His ex-wife had found a new boyfriend, and Larry, according to Janice, had stood outside her apartment threatening the two of them with a pocketknife.

Two years later Larry got into a fight in a pizza parlor. He again pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and was fined $100. Then, in 1984, Mahoney was arrested for driving under the influence. He paid a fine and was ordered to attend an alcohol education program. He rode motorcycles for a while, and the photo on his 1984 driver's license shows him wearing a Harley-Davidson cap bearing the logo Ride Hard, Die Hard. Larry apparently reconsidered that homely philosophy when a close friend was killed in a motorcycle accident two years ago; after that, Mahoney usually left his bike in his parents' yard.

By all accounts, Larry had settled down considerably in the last few years. He was living with his first wife, Janice, and friends say they were thinking of getting married again. He hadn't been seen much around Tubby's Tavern, the local hangout, perhaps because of his ulcers.

But on the afternoon of May 14, a few hours after coming off a 12-hour, all-night shift at the chemical plant, Larry did stop off at Tubby's. Owner Joann Osborne says he sat by himself, had one beer and left. Around dinner time he dropped in on his friend Dennis Mefford. He shared a pizza and a six-pack with Dennis and another friend and helped them install a truck radio. Mahoney was in a good mood, Mefford said: The boss had praised his work at the plant, and he was looking forward to hunting season.

Mahoney then drove over to another friend's, where several men were working on a bus and drinking beer. It was warm. It was spring. It was Saturday night. No one kept tabs on how much Larry was drinking. But it must have been a lot, because at one point, one of his buddies took Mahoney's keys away. But he gave them back sometime around 10, when Larry promised he would drive straight to his house, a short distance away. When Mahoney climbed alone into the cab of his '87 Toyota pickup—in which police would later find a still-cold 12-pack of Miller Lite with a few cans missing—"he wasn't feeling any pain," says one of the guys. About an hour later Larry was seen erratically driving northbound in 1-71's southbound lanes, some five miles from his house. The Toyota apparently swiped a Cadillac, then smashed into the school bus, which became an instant inferno. "It was terrible," says a witness. "I heard the screams of the children as they were burning and dying. I can't get it out of my mind."

Nor, of course, can the people of Radcliff. One man lost his entire family in the crash. A woman who lost her son told a reporter just after the accident that she wanted Mahoney to live so that "he can go through what I'm going through. Every morning I'm going to wake up looking for my baby, and every night I'm going to go to bed crying for him."

Larry's bed, for now, is a concrete bunk with a thin foam mattress in the psychiatric facility of the Kentucky State Reformatory at LaGrange-where he has been sent to determine his psychological fitness to stand trial. Sleeping is difficult because of the pain from his injured lung and the constant chatter of other patients, who aimlessly wander the ward.

Quietly, shyly, Mahoney talks about his incarceration. "It bothers me," he says. "I've always been an outside person. But I kind of more or less stay in my room now." He talks, too, about life before the accident and about his coon hounds. "I don't know how to explain it," he says, "but I have a love for those dogs. I like to just sit back there and pet on 'em. Just set with 'em and talk to 'em. I love being around 'em."

He talks, unprompted, about the questions he knows are on everybody's mind. "I've never had a problem with anybody," he says. "You could ask anybody that you want to. And I never had any problem with drinking. I was not an alcoholic or nothing like that." What would he say were he to meet the families of the victims? "It would be hard for me to face them," he says after a pause. "Maybe in time.

"I think about the accident," he continues, "and I just don't know how to say it. I would have never meant for it to happen. I would just give anything if it hadn't. I hate it, I really hate it. And it's sure that I'm going to have to live with it the rest of my life."

Meanwhile, the friends so ready to forgive Larry must also decide how quickly to forgive themselves. "If we could have seen the future," said Phil Downey, who was with Larry just before the accident, "we never would have let him leave." But they did, of course, because people still refuse to see the future until it happens-because, after all, it never happens to people you know. Not to someone like Larry Mahoney.

—By Joyce Wadler, with Susan Schindehette in Kentucky