Joe Percefull: Lessons from Tragedy

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OCMS teacher uses personal story of survival to get students to think about choices

By Drew Nichter

The classroom is alive with activity as a handful of eighth-graders puts the finishing touches on decorations for an end-of-the-school-year field day.


Like so many before them, the students will soon make the inevitable leap from middle school upperclassman to high school newbies.

Joe Percefull has observed this rite of passage many times in his 16 years as a teacher at Oldham County Middle School.

As coordinator of the school’s gifted and talented program, Percefull knows the students he works with are positioned for success, in school and beyond.

But they are no less vulnerable to tragedy than he was 25 years ago.

Today, Percefull is a popular teacher. In 1988, he was an undersized 14 year old finishing up his freshman year at North Hardin High in Radcliff.

A friend invited him on a church youth trip to Kings Island in Cincinnati.

At five minutes to 11 p.m., May 14, 1988, on Interstate 71 near Carrollton, Joe Percefull learned the tragic consequences one bad decision can have.

The Carrollton bus crash is the deadliest drunk driving incident in U.S. history.

Of the 67 passengers, 27 died as fire and toxic smoke consumed the bus in less than two minutes.

A new documentary detailing the tragedy, “Impact: After the Crash,” was produced by crash survivor Harold Dennis.

In it, he says, “If you didn’t react instantly, you weren’t going to make it.”

Percefull did just that.

His first thought: “Let’s get out of here.”

The memories are just as fresh today as they were 25 years ago.

The 14-year-old Percefull was sitting with two friends in the third-row seat behind the bus driver.

When the gas tank ignited moments after Larry Mahoney’s truck collided with the bus,

Percefull climbed over the tops of the seats toward the back of the bus.

“I never looked back, never stopped to see what was going on,” he said.

At the back door, people were already piling up in the 12-inch aisle, pushing and clawing for a way out.

Percefull saw an opening at the top of the pile and dove for it.

His frantic escape took less than 15 seconds, he recalled.

“The next thing I knew I was on the ground, and I was walking away from the bus,” Percefull said.

With minor burns on his arm, leg and neck, Percefull thought he was OK – until shock set in.

The heat inside the bus – which is said to have reached 2,000 degrees in a matter of seconds – burned the inside of his throat, causing it to swell.

Percefull spent eight days at University of Louisville Hospital, half that time on a ventilator.
He was one of the fortunate ones.

Percefull is one of only four people who sat in the first three rows of the bus to survive.

His best friend, Joshua Conyers, whom he was sitting next to on the ride home, was among the 27 who died on the bus.

Percefull said his decision to climb over the seats certainly saved his life.

“If I go to the aisle, I would’ve died,” he said.

Percefull admitted he thinks a lot about the life-saving choice he made that night.

He also thinks a lot about the catastrophic choice Larry Mahoney made to drink and drive.

Percefull has told countless students about the crash over the years.

“I don’t get tired of sharing the story,” he said. “I feel like I have a responsibility to tell my friends’ story.”

But he doesn’t do it for attention or sympathy.

It’s a teaching tool, he explained.

“My message usually isn’t about drinking and driving,” Percefull said. “It’s really about choices.”

Specifically, the fateful decision Mahoney made to get behind the wheel of his truck with a blood alcohol level more than double the legal limit.

Mahoney was convicted of dozens of charges, including 27 counts of second-degree manslaughter. He served nearly 11 years at Ky. State Reformatory in La Grange.

He was released from prison in 1999.

Inevitably, students will ask Percefull if he is angry at Mahoney. “Do you want to kill him? Do you wish he was still in jail?” they’ll ask.

“He is a regular person who made the most horrendous choice that he possibly could’ve made,” Percefull said.

While not all choices have the same devastating impact as Mahoney’s, a bad decision always puts someone at risk, Percefull tells his students.

“Larry Mahoney is all of us. We all make choices on a daily basis,” Percefull said. “It could be to text while you’re driving. It could be to drink and drive.

“How are you any different than Larry Mahoney?”

As painful as the memories are, Percefull said he has no plans to stop sharing his story with students.

He anticipates having DVD copies of the “Impact” documentary in the future to enhance his message to students.

Percefull attended a May 14 screening of the movie in Radcliff. He praised the film for its accurate portrayal of the crash.

Percefull also would welcome an unlikely partner in telling his story: Larry Mahoney.

“I would welcome him to come and talk to my kids and stand with me,” Percefull said. “I think he has an incredible platform.”

To date, Mahoney has declined to speak publicly about the crash.

Percefull said he doesn’t believe Mahoney owes it to those whose lives were forever affected by the crash, but it would go a long way toward healing some deep wounds.

“He’s not a real person to me. He’s a story,” Percefull said. “Once I got past that, I think it would be really a good thing. I think he could do a lot of good.”

Email us about this story at: drew@oldhamera.com.