30 years after horrific bus tragedy, local coach, educator finds healing with God's help

The front page of the Dayton Daily News on May 16, 1988, shows the aftermath of a deadly bus accident in which local Catholic school coach and educator Jim Slaughter was involved as a teenager. Slaughter, who was 15 at the time, says it's taken him time to come to grips with why God would allow the tragedy to happen, but says his life today is brighter and more meaningful because of the power of his faith. (Courtesy photo | Dayton Daily News)

Today, Jim Slaughter teaches theology at University of Detroit Jesuit High School and is a Hall of Fame tennis coach.

Thirty years and six months ago – specifically, on a humid Saturday night, May 14, 1988  – he was a terrified 15-year-old high school freshman four minutes from being trapped and dying in a packed, burning church bus.

An intoxicated 34-year-old factory worker driving a pickup truck north on the southbound lanes of Interstate 70 collided nearly head-on with the bus Jim was riding in near Carrollton, Kentucky, located about midway along the 180-mile stretch between Cincinnati and Louisville.

Twenty-seven died. Jim was one of 40 survivors.

His students ask him: “Did you see them die?”

“Yes, I saw them die,” he responds to the difficult question. “All 27.”

I spoke recently with Jim, who was willing to talk about what happened:

“My family moved from Oxford, Michigan, to Kentucky when I finished eighth grade,” Jim says. “My dad bought a Little Caesar’s franchise in Radcliff, Kentucky (a city of almost 14,000 about 25 miles south of Louisville).

“It’s near Fort Knox, so it was common for kids to be transferring in and out of schools all the time. I fit in. I got to know Joe and Josh. We were inseparable.

“In May, Josh invited me to go with his youth group from the Assembly of God church to Kings Island theme park near Cincinnati. We asked Mary and Shannon to hang out with us. We had a great time. It was a great day. It was hot.

“We sat two rows behind the driver. Josh sat by the window, I was in the middle and Joe on the aisle. We asked Mary and Shannon to sit across the aisle from us.

(Background: There were 67 passengers on the bus: 62 high school and middle school students, four adults, and the driver. The bus was a 1977 Ford B700 school bus chassis equipped with a Superior school bus body with 11 rows of wide seats on either side of a central aisle 12 inches  wide. The church purchased the bus in 1987 from the Kentucky Department of Schools.)

Jim Slaughter, tennis coach at University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy of the Sacred Heart, survived the 1988 bus crash near Carrollton, Kentucky, that claimed the lives of 27 people, including friends, classmates and chaperones. 
The front page of the Dayton Daily News on May 16, 1988, carries news of the crash.

“It was pitch black in the bus on the way back,” Jim continued. “I was awake but had my head down. I heard Mr. (John) Pearman, the driver, yell, ‘Watch out! Look out!’ We hit something. It was loud. My head slammed into the seat in front of me.

“The bus dropped. The front end was down. There was debris all over. I could smell the odor of grinding metal as the bus skidded. We stopped.”

(Post-accident investigation determined that the right front of the pickup truck struck the right front of the bus, breaking off the bus's suspension and driving the leaf spring backward into the gas tank mounted just behind the stepwell for the front door. Leaking gasoline from the punctured fuel tank was ignited by sparks caused from metal parts scraping along the road. Seat covers and the highly flammable polyurethane foam padding ignited. Temperature inside the bus rose to an estimated 2,000 degrees and a thick cloud of noxious smoke enveloped the area from the ceiling down to seat level within a minute or two.)

“Right away I could see a glow,” Jim said. “Mr. Pearman was shouting ‘Get off! Get off!’ Everyone started running to the back. There was only one exit. The front door was blocked. I remember turning to the aisle. It was packed.  

“I started climbing over the seats. I grabbed Josh’s hand but I couldn’t keep hold. I started skipping over the seats. I was about half way to the back when an explosion moved me forward.

“The heat. I remember it the most. It was like, if you’re cooking in an oven and you put your face in the oven. It was a huge amount of heat, but it kept getting hotter and hotter.

“I tried kicking out a window but I couldn’t. I remember seeing one of the adults, a small lady, who was able to squeeze out of a window that was partially open.

“When I got to the back it seemed like forever. There was an opening (Jim held his hands apart about 6-7 inches) between the top of the door and the mass of kids pushing their way through.

“I dove. I was half in and half out. Somebody from outside grabbed me and pulled me out. I dropped to the concrete and ran.

“I looked back. The whole bus was engulfed in flames. I could see figures of people running around, trying to get out. Yes, I saw them die. I found Joe. I couldn’t find Josh or Mary and Shannon either. They died. Only four people from the front six rows made it out alive.

“There were people all around. I was given a blanket and taken to the hospital. I had first- and second-degree burns on 20 percent of my body. Joe had third- and fourth-degree burns.”

Coming to terms, with God's help

Some 27 people were trapped inside: 23 students, the driver, the wife of the pastor, and two adult-chaperones from the church. The school kids who perished ranged in age from 10 to 17. A dozen of the injured suffered severe burns. Some were disfigured for life.

In the aftermath, Larry Mahoney, the driver of the pickup, had been arrested for DUI. His blood alcohol concentration the night of the crash was .24 percent, more than double the 1988 Kentucky legal limit of .10. He had no memory of the crash and learned of the collision after waking in the hospital the next day.

“I was angry a long time. How could God let this happen? I came to realize that God doesn’t allow stuff to happen. He’s there to help us with the stuff we’ve created. He’s there to guide us in this crazy world. He doesn’t tell us what to do. He just points a direction. What to do is my job.”

He served a sentence of 16 years upon conviction of 27 counts of manslaughter in the second degree, 16 counts of assault in the second degree, and 27 counts of wanton endangerment in the first degree. He’s reported to be living in quiet, self-imposed obscurity in rural Kentucky.

Both federal and state laws and regulations concerning the design and manufacture of school and non-school buses have been substantially rewritten. One change: a demand that diesel fuel be used in bus fleets. Unlike gasoline, diesel fuel is not highly flammable. A coroner’s report indicated that without the fire and smoke, all of the passengers in the Carrollton bus incident would have likely survived.

As for Jim Slaughter’s aftermath, “For a long time I felt guilty that I had survived. A sense of selfishness. People told me l survived for a reason. I used to joke: God sent Moses a burning bush. He sent me a burning bus.”

That he received a share of damages from a massive lawsuit against the manufacturer of the bus didn’t assuage his feelings of guilt. It did help pay for his degree from Western Kentucky University, a house and a car.

“But I was struggling to find a meaning for my life,” Jim says.

His faith helped him in his search.

“I was angry a long time. How could God let this happen? I came to realize that God doesn’t allow stuff to happen. He’s there to help us with the stuff we’ve created. He’s there to guide us in this crazy world. He doesn’t tell us what to do. He just points a direction. What to do is my job.”

Jim went through a series of jobs. The first was in 1997, teaching theology at Detroit U-D Jesuit Academy and coaching tennis at the high school. That lasted eight years.

Armed with a master’s degree in education, he hired on as principal at Hazel Park St. Mary Magdalene grade school.

Two years later, he accepted the task of teaching morality and Church history at Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice, and coaching tennis, guiding the Warriors to the 2009 state championship.

In 2010, he found himself “happily back” in the classroom at U-D Jesuit, and still on the tennis court, this time both for the Cubs in the fall and, in the spring, at Bloomfield Hills Sacred Heart Academy, winning state titles in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2018. He was inducted in May into the Michigan High School Tennis Coaches Hall of Fame.

“That’s the gift of God’s friendship,” Jim says. “I have a totally different perspective on life, thankful for what I have and have accomplished.”

Contact Don Horkey at [email protected].