Two Families Fight to Make Ford Pay for the Kentucky School-Bus Disaster That Killed Their Daughters

UPDATED 10/31/1988 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 10/31/1988 at 01:00 AM EST

The phone rang at about 3 o'clock in the morning. Janey Fair was awake. She had been for hours, frequently walking to the front door of her family's Radcliff, Ky., home to look for headlights that would herald the return of her child. She had expected 14-year-old Shannon around 11 p.m. With her Army officer husband, Larry, out of town, Janey had been alone with her fears, telling herself that the bus bringing Shannon and her friends home from a church-group day trip had probably been delayed on the highway.

The call came from the Radcliff First Assembly of God: There had been a serious accident. The details weren't known, but she should come to the church right away. Janey was in a panic as she drove there, but what she saw when she arrived terrified her even more: "There were already TV trucks with satellite dishes set up outside the church," she recalls. "You could tell it was bad. Then I found out Shannon and all her friends were missing."

Though details were sketchy, the news was devastating. The school bus carrying members of the church's Life Is for Everyone youth group and their guests back from King's Island amusement park near Cincinnati had been hit head-on by a pickup truck going the wrong way on Interstate 71. The bus had erupted in flames, and it was thought that at least 16 of the 64 youngsters and three adults had died. The injured had been rushed to several different hospitals, leaving uncertainty as to which children were dead and which alive. There was nothing to do for the rest of that horrifying night last May but wait for news. It was a warm night, but as Janey and about 100 others sat in the church, they shivered. "We were just ice-cold—from fear, I guess," she says.

At 5 a.m., the families of the missing were driven to a Holiday Inn near the crash scene in Carrollton, Ky. "We still had hopes a few were alive," says Janey, though by that time officials had begun, ominously, to talk of the need for dental records. Then medical examiner George Nichols began to speak. "The first thing he told us was, 'I want you all to remember your children as they are in the pictures in your wallets and in your hearts,' " says Janey. "He told us there was no reason to view the bodies because they were all unidentifiable—all of them." Shannon Fair, 23 other kids aged 10 to 19 and three adults were dead.

In the agonizing days that followed, Janey and Larry Fair were swept by the ferocious sorrow of parents who must bury a child. Their wounds were salted by a stinging irony: While serving in South Korea 18 years ago, Larry had won the Soldier's Medal, the Army's highest award for noncombat heroism, for dashing into an overturned burning bus to rescue 30 people, many of them children. Janey remembers talking at the time about "how lucky we were in the United States that kids didn't have to ride such rattletrap buses."

In their grief, the Fairs felt an increasingly urgent need to know exactly how Shannon had been taken from them. They knew that Larry Mahoney, 35, the driver of the pickup that had rammed into the bus, was alleged to have been drunk and faced 27 counts of murder. But they needed to know more.

Searching for answers, Janey, a former legal secretary, spent hours poring over hundreds of articles and documents concerning school-bus safety. She and Larry, 41, a lieutenant colonel, called on disaster lawyers and accident experts. What they found out left them outraged.

The Fairs now believe that Shannon and her friends died because the Ford Motor Company, manufacturer of the 1977 school-bus chassis, and Sheller-Globe Corp., which built the bus's body, failed to correct known, potentially lethal defects in the vehicle. The Fairs were horrified to discover that tens of thousands of school buses still in service in this country share perhaps the most glaring of those defects, an unprotected gas tank so vulnerable that even a relatively minor collision could cause an inferno. Their anger having turned to grim resolve, the Fairs, virtually alone among the victims' families, rejected a settlement and filed suit in July against the two companies. In seeking justice for Shannon, they hope to teach the entire transportation industry a lesson it will never forget.

The first hint that "something wasn't right," says Larry, was the autopsy report: No one had been killed, or even seriously injured, by the impact of the crash. "All the kids died of smoke inhalation," says Janey. Adds Larry: "If it weren't for the fire, every kid would have walked off."

The Fairs forced themselves to read articles in which survivors described their last moments on the bus: Flames shot up through the floorboard near the front door, spewing smoke so black and acrid that they could neither see nor breathe. As they struggled to outrace the surging flames to the only other exit, at the back of the bus, some passed out from the smoke and others tripped and fell in the one-foot-wide aisle. Some who made it out were able to pull others to safety, but within about 2½ minutes the bus was engulfed in fire. The children trapped inside stopped screaming for their mothers. The only sound was the crackling of flames.

Larry Fair, deputy commanding officer of the 4th Training Brigade at Fort Knox, can describe in clinical detail the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board's initial inquiry into the crash that killed his daughter: The right front of the pickup truck hit the right front of the bus, breaking off the bus's suspension and driving the leaf spring backward into the gas tank mounted outside the frame, just behind the front door. The spring speared the full 60-gallon tank, punching a 2½-inch hole in it. "Now look at this," says Larry, producing an NTSB report on a 1972 accident in Reston, Va. No one was killed in that accident, but it involved a school bus with a Ford-built chassis on which the gas tank was similarly exposed. "A large-scale tragedy could easily have followed," reads the report. "It should not be necessary to wait until such a tragedy has occurred."

Spurred by the Reston accident, the Fairs learned, Congress passed school-bus safety legislation in 1974, the year Shannon was born. But manufacturers managed to delay the implementation of automotive safety standards, including those relating to school-bus safety. (The Fairs are particularly incensed by a transcript they obtained of then-Ford President Lee Iacocca lobbying President Nixon in 1971 to put off costly new rules for cars: "Safety has really killed all of our business," he said.) The standard requiring that school-bus gas tanks be protected against collisions finally went into force on April 1, 1977. "The chassis on Shannon's bus was manufactured on March 23, 1977, nine days before the law took effect," says Larry. The bus chassis, like all those Ford built starting in August 1976, had holes drilled in it for installation of a metal safety cage around the fuel tank—but the cage was not put on. "Ford would not do anything until the letter of the law absolutely required it," Larry says bitterly. "It's unconscionable that they would build a product that, in my opinion, they knew was unsafe. I know profit-making is what the American empire is built on. But the ruthlessness of it astonishes me."

Adds Janey: "Larry Mahoney is facing 27 life sentences. He made a conscious decision to get drunk. And Ford sat in their air-conditioned offices and made a conscious decision to produce unsafe vehicles. They're just as guilty."

Barely six weeks after the crash, before a single lawsuit had been filed, Ford and Sheller-Globe initiated settlement talks with a Radcliff law firm representing most of the victims' families. "This was inconceivable to me," recalls Larry. "I mean the reality hadn't set in yet. You're still doing things like going down to get Shannon up for school. And all of a sudden there's talk of a settlement, and—bang!—it happened. Ford came down here and—my best estimate—laid around $40 million on the table." The settlement reportedly promised $700,000 for each death, with payment on a sliding scale for the injured, as well as a $500,000 fund to help fight drunk driving. The families of 64 passengers quickly accepted. But by then Larry and Janey had retained a lawyer of their own, Washington, D.C., disaster specialist John P. Coale. They decided to sue.

"What really bothered me was that Ford was buying silence," says Larry. "And if someone doesn't speak out, they've bought the right to leave their unsafe products on the road. We've never sued anyone before. We're not in this for the money. But the damages have to be enough to make it economically unfeasible for Ford to produce unsafe vehicles."

The Fairs are no longer alone in taking on Ford and Sheller-Globe. Jim and Karolyn Nunnallee, who lost their daughter Patty, 10, filed suit this month. "Taking the settlement would do nothing to avert a repetition" of the tragedy, says Jim, 37, an Air Force major who served at Fort Knox. "It's just like the Pinto situation. They decide whether it's cheaper to pay the damages when people get burned to death than it is to make the changes."

Within minutes after the settlement offer was relayed to them, the Nunnallees agreed on their response: They would settle for $1 if the manufacturers would promise to recall all the buses they had built before April 1977 and bring them up to safety standards. Sheller-Globe never responded; Ford met with the Nunnallees three times but never came to a decision. So the Nunnallees decided to sue.

In concluding the settlement with other families, Ford and Sheller-Globe did not admit fault. "We do not believe our product was defective," says a Ford spokesman. A Ford lawyer explained that the companies agreed to a settlement in order to insure swift compensation to the families and to avoid "years of litigation in which ultimately a local Kentucky jury would be asked to make a decision as to whether any party could have done anything different."

"The companies might have lost a little money on fixing the buses," says Karolyn, 37, "but I just wish they could feel what we have lost." She chokes back tears. "When Patty first came to me and said, 'Mommy, I'm going to go to King's Island,' I said, 'No, you are not,' because, you know—my little girl going that far away. But she said, 'My friend's mother's going, and we're going on a school bus.' And I thought, 'Well, what could be safer?' "

Tragically aware now of the truth, the Fairs and Nunnallees want to protect other children. Faulty buses must be made safe, they say, and new buses better designed. The bereaved parents point out that virtually all school buses, including those built today, still use highly flammable polyurethane seat cushions, which are prohibited by federal regulations on most city buses.

Janey Fair sits in her kitchen at a table piled high with documents. She wears a piece of Shannon's jewelry—a gold number 92, the year she would have graduated from high school. While Janey's other child, Donald, 16, blasts away on his electric guitar, Janey studies Shannon's middle-school yearbook. "This little girl's dead," she says. "This boy is dead. This girl was burned. This one's dead. Christy was critically burned. This is Mary Daniels—she's dead. This is Denise Voglund—she's dead. They were such good kids, I swear, all of 'em." Her voice cracks. "Shannon just has very few friends left. One of the girls was in tears a little while ago because it was her birthday, and she didn't have anybody to invite. Most of them are just gone."

"Nothing we can do will change history or bring Shannon and the others back," says Larry. "I wish somebody had done something before. But if we don't do something now, I think this is going to happen again. The question is not if—it's when."

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