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Fri, Oct 31, 2014 09:45 PM
Issue of October 29, 2014
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14 years later, Carrollton bus crash still vivid

Local alcohol, drug offenders are moved by the story of a father who lost wife, 2 daughters

Lee Williams loved being a father, and his two daughters, Kristen, 14, and Robin, 10, loved him. He remembers vividly the last minutes he shared with the "gifts" who called him Daddy.

They left on a weekend trip with their mother, Joy, and members of their church on a Saturday morning. By Saturday night, there was no one to call Lee Williams Daddy anymore.

On that night, May 14, 1988, danger reached beyond even a mother's ability to protect her children. Joy Williams, Lee's wife of 18 years, was also dead. She wouldn't be there to help ease his grief.

The day of the Carrollton, Ky., bus crash, Larry Mahoney had been drinking to take away his sorrow over a fight with his girlfriend. After Mahoney got behind the wheel of his pickup, alcohol continued to take away. It took away Lee Williams' entire family. Two wives lost their husbands, five children lost their fathers.

A repeat drunk-driving offender, Mahoney killed 27 people and survived with only minor injuries. Heavily intoxicated and traveling the wrong way down Interstate 71, Mahoney collided head-on with the church bus. A full tank of gas ruptured and consumed the bus in a bath of flames, burning its occupants while they tried to escape.

Williams' heartrending story is so powerful that most people who listen are moved to tears. It can be influential enough to alter behavior, even habit. That is why Williams was the closing speaker of the four-member "Victim Impact Panel" on Dec. 17.

About 50 people heard the presentation in the Superior Courtroom at the Harrison County Justice Center in Corydon. Most were there, ordered by the court, to listen to the emotionally draining, real-life examples of the consequences of alcohol abuse.

Unfortunately, before attending the panel, an abuser may have driven under the influence "lots," "dozens," even "uncountable" times, according to evaluations that each person had to complete. They fill out the evaluations after the program, placing them in a box on the table where the speakers are seated. Sometimes there is eye contact. Often there is not.

Each day an average of 45 people die as a result of drinking and driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. There are nearly one billion drinking and driving trips made each year in the United States.

"The Victim Impact Panel is strictly an emotional appeal," said Superior Court Chief Probation Officer Diane Harrison. "Hopefully, the next time they would drive after drinking, they would stop and think about it. If it stops them once, that's a start."

The evaluation asks: "As a result of tonight's presentations, do you plan to change your drinking and driving behavior?"

Many respondents said they would not drink and drive again.

"It could be my family or even someone else's that I destroyed because of drinking and driving," said one 43-year-old.

"Hearing their stories drove home what I could lose," a 41-year-old said.

One respondent, 46, said he planned to quit drinking, period.

Lee Williams' message wasn't just about what could be lost. It was also about not taking loved ones for granted and not giving up hope.

Williams always knew he loved his daughters. But sitting alone in their rooms in the solitary days after his loss, he realized the overwhelming importance they had in his life.

The last morning Williams saw his 14-year-old daughter, Kristen, was two days before the accident. She was going to a friend's house. Williams happened to be running late, and he bumped into Kristen as she was coming out of the bathroom door.

"I just told her to have a good time, but I do remember telling her this: I told her that I loved her," he said.

A few minutes later, Williams heard the back door slam, and though he couldn't say why, he stopped at the window and watched Kristen walk away. Standing before his audience 14 years and seven months later, Williams still remembered everything his daughter wore that day.

"I can even see her hair blowing where the wind is blowing, and I thought, 'Man, how much I love my kids.' I just watched her make the left there on Potter's Lane, and she went to her good friend's house. She walked out of my life, just like that."

Some weeks later, Williams realized another powerful consequence of the crash.

"I'm walking down the mall and here comes this little girl that reminds me so much of Robin. She ran up to her dad and said, 'Daddy, can I have a dollar to get a Coke?' And then it hit me, 'I'll never hear that word again.' I was a dad. I didn't even know how important that word was until now."

Lee Williams spent the remaining dark months of that year alone. Looking back, "I still don't know how I made it except by the grace of God," he said.

Not far away, Dotty Pearman, who also spoke that night, was having a very similar experience. Her husband, John, was driving the bus at the time of the collision. Pearman's 13-year-old daughter was sitting in the back. John Pearman never had a chance, and as the bus burst into flames, his daughter stayed and screamed for her daddy.

Christy Pearman suffered burns over 60 percent of her body before escaping through the back of the bus.

On New Year's Eve 1998, both Dotty Pearman and Lee Williams made the powerful resolution to begin living again. Shortly thereafter, Williams asked Pearman to lunch, and for the next seven months the two shared stories of lost loved ones, suffering and survival.

They fell in love and married on July 8, 1989. Dotty's son, Robbie, was best man.

The very next Christmas, Dotty Williams' daughters, Tiffany and Christy, and her son, Robbie, got together without their parents' knowledge to discuss a very special Christmas gift. The choice to give it had to be unanimous, and it was.

On Christmas Day, the three children gave Lee back something he had lost. They began to call him "Dad." He was a father again.

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Corydon Democrat, 301 N. Capitol Ave., Corydon, IN 47112 1-812-738-2211 email