THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Sunday, October 2, 1994 TAG: 9410030244 SECTION: COMMENTARY PAGE: J2 EDITION: FINAL TYPE: Book Review SOURCE: BY IRENE NOLAN LENGTH: Medium: 97 lines
Corporate Greed, Government Indifference, and the Kentucky School Bus Crash
JAMES S. KUNEN
Simon & Schuster. 416 pp. $23. \ On the night of Saturday, May 14, 1988, a drunken driver named Larry Mahoney drove his black pickup down the wrong side of a Kentucky interstate and rammed it head-on into a school bus carrying 63 children and three adult chaperones who were returning from a church outing.
The bus burst into flames. Twenty-seven people - 24 of the children and the three adults - were killed in what still ranks as the worst drunken-driving accident in U.S. history.
One of those children was Shannon Fair, the 14-year-old daughter of Larry Fair, an Army lieutenant colonel stationed at Fort Knox, and his wife, Janey.
Reckless Disregard is the Fairs' story - the story of their relentless search to find reasons for their daughter's death, the devastating conclusions they reached and their battle to change the system.
Shannon Fair and the other victims survived the crash. They were all incinerated in the fire that erupted when the bus's fuel tank, mounted next to the front door, ruptured and caught fire. As the victims struggled to get off the bus through a narrow aisle leading to the only other exit in the rear, many were felled by toxic fumes from burning materials on the seats.
The Kentucky medical examiner concluded that there were no significant impact injuries and that no one would have died had there been no fire.
And there probably would not have been a fire if the fuel tank had been covered by a metal cage, required on all buses built since April 1, 1977. The Kentucky bus carrying Shannon Fair was a 1977 model. The chassis rolled off the Ford Motor Co. assembly line at its Kentucky truck plant near Louisville on March 23, 1977.
To Janey and Larry Fair, Ford and the Sheller-Globe Corp., which built the body of the bus, were just as responsible for their daughter's death as Mahoney was. While all of the other families settled with the two corporations quickly after the crash, the Fairs and one other couple - Carolyn and Jim Nunnallee - held out and filed suit against them.
James S. Kunen, author of The Strawberry Statement, was an associate editor at People magazine when he learned that the two military families who had each lost a daughter in the crash were taking on the automaker. He asked to be assigned to the story, and after covering Mahoney's criminal trial, he secured Janey and Larry Fair's cooperation in writing the story of their struggle with Ford.
The resultant book, Reckless Disregard, subtitled ``Corporate Greed, Government Indifference, and the Kentucky School Bus Crash,'' doesn't invite casual reading. It is a sweeping charge against the Ford Motor Co. and government regulators of public safety.
Kunen delivers a stunning indictment of a system that measures life in cost-benefit ratios. There is ample documentation to back up his charges of greed and indifference. He also delivers a remarkably readable account of the tragic crash, the regulation of school bus safety (or more precisely the lack thereof) and the lengthy civil proceedings.
Part I of the book is aptly titled ``The End.'' In heartbreakingly human terms, Kunen pieces together the saga of the children and their friends and chaperones. Kunen doesn't dwell on the most gruesome details of the accident, but his account is horrifying enough.
The author then turns to ``The Beginning,'' the story of how the bus came to be manufactured without a steel cage to protect the fuel tank, although federal regulators and Ford executives knew that it could be made safer - at a cost. Kunen takes us back to the Nixon White House, as Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca, then the president of Ford, implore Nixon to get the federal regulators off their backs.
Nixon, it turns out, secretly taped their meeting, and the tape was later discovered and transcribed during the Watergate investigation. It makes fascinating reading.
``Judgment,'' the section of the book that covers the court proceedings, is amazingly one of the most readable parts. Kunen has a real talent for portraying character. Rather than focusing on the damning but lengthy and dull testimony of various expert witnesses, Kunen focuses on the people. He gives a vivid account of the battle of wits among the Fairs' attorney, Ford's attorneys and the judge.
According to the book's epilogue, many thousands of pre-1977 buses are still presumed in nonpublic school use. And, despite the 1989 recommendations of the National Transportation Safety Board, highly flammable materials are still used in school bus interiors; and only one emergency exit was required until this year. Buses built after May 2, 1994, will have to have more emergency exits, but thousands of children will ride around for years on those pre-1994 buses, some built as long as six years after Shannon Fair and her friends died. MEMO: Irene Nolan is editor of The Island Breeze on Hatteras Island. She lives
in Buxton, N.C. ILLUSTRATION: Jacket design by BERNADETTE EVANGELIST
Jacket photograph by BILL LUSTER