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Inferno on Interstate 71

Sixteen years after the deadliest drunken driving tragedy in American history, a pastor’s wife and mother shares lessons learned in the midst of sorrow.

By Martha Tennison as told to Scott Harrup

I will never call it an accident.

It is never an accident when people choose to drink and drive; it’s a tragedy. The events that unfolded for our church on May 14, 1988, created the worst drunken driving tragedy in American history. That night, 24 children and three adults lost their lives. Thirteen other people were injured.

My husband, Don, and I pastored First Assembly of God in Radcliff, Ky. Every year for nine years our youth had gone on a daylong outing to King’s Island, a Cincinnati amusement park. My husband had always gone on this trip with them, but this particular day my father was celebrating his 79th birthday. So my husband said he would stay with us. Our son, Allen, was 15 at the time, so he went with the youth group.

Don took Allen over to the church. He prayed with the youth as they pulled out with 67 people. There was a young person in every window of the bus waving and saying, “Good-bye, Pastor. We’ll see you this evening.” He will never forget that last time he saw many of those precious faces.

The youth had a wonderful time at King’s Island and we enjoyed our time with our family. At 9 o’clock that evening, Don went to the church to have prayer time with the men. He always did that on Saturday evening. I walked into Allen’s room at around 10:30. I turned on his light and pulled down his bed. As I walked back through the room something said to my spirit, “You had better hope that boy returns to this room this evening.” So I stood in the door and pleaded the blood of Jesus on his life, thinking he was the only one in danger.

I felt uneasy so I called my husband at the church. “Has the bus gotten in yet?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “and I’m getting a little concerned. They were supposed to be in early so they could get plenty of rest and be in Sunday School in the morning. But possibly they stopped at McDonald’s or were late getting back to the bus.”

At 12:10 he called me with terrible news. A father had called him with a report from Carroll County Hospital in Carrollton, Ky. Our church children were in six hospitals across the area.

A drunken driver going the wrong way down Interstate 71 hit our bus right headlight to right headlight. The collision drove the front axle eight feet back under the bus. It broke the spring system, which flew back and punctured the gas tank. They had just fueled up about half an hour earlier. The state police said our driver only had about two seconds to react and was trying to get the bus out of the way. The spring began to drag on the pavement and create sparks. The gas was dripping on the sparks and soon the bus became an inferno.

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