Janet Kytta decided not to go with her husband on the church bus trip to the amusement park that tragic Saturday. She stayed home with their young son and daughter.
Her husband, Chuck Kytta, would not come back home.
Neither did the 26 others killed May 14, 1988, in the Carrollton bus crash, this nation’s worst drunken-driving accident.
“It was horrible, excruciating,” said the wife and mother as this year’s 30th anniversary of the crash approached. “I never thought anything like this could ever happen again to me.”
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Eight years ago, her son, Charlie Kytta, who resembled his dad, was killed on his way to work in the morning when a driver under the influence of various drugs plowed head-first into his car traveling 75 mph.
He left behind a wife, 3-year-old daughter and a mother who could only ask why.
“I never got mad at God,” said the grieving mother. “But I have asked why? Why these two good men, my husband and then my son? Why both at the hands of impaired drivers?”
“We have that feeling that if tragedy happens to us once, we’re safe," Karolyn Nunnallee, the former national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving whose 10-year-old daughter, Patty, was killed in the Carrollton bus crash. "We think it will never happen again, that we are immune for some reason,” she said. “But we are never safe. We must remain vigilant in trying to prevent these horrors from happening and they are preventable.”
MADD says 10,497 people were killed on American highways in 2016 at the hands of impaired drivers. That’s more than the 9,836 population of the city of Paris in Central Kentucky.
The death rate is 29 people every day, one every 50 minutes, said MADD.
To Janet Kytta, the death count is two.
Young love, and devotion to their church
Janet Hancock was born Nov. 22, 1957, in Elizabethtown. Her father, James Coleman, was a World War II veteran who became a chef for soldiers at Fort Knox. Her mother, Dorothy Jean Coleman, was a housewife. He died in 2008 and she died in 1992.
Janet was the youngest of three children, a pretty, skinny girl with dark hair. She graduated from East Hardin High School in 1975 and years later got a nursing degree from Elizabethtown Community College.
She was 14 when she met Chuck Kytta from Xenia, Ohio. He was 17 and was visiting friends in Hardin County.
“He was good-looking and fun,” she said. “I was quiet. He was an extrovert.”
They were married July 11, 1975, the summer after she graduated from high school. They set off to see the world through his service in the U.S. Air Force.
“We went straight to Italy, where Chuck was a Morse Code technician for the Air Force,” she said. “We were there for about 18 months and then went to San Antonio, Texas, where he worked two to three years in security.”
In 1977 in San Antonio, their first child, Mandy, was born. A son, Charles Kytta III, called Charlie, was born a year later.
When the family left San Antonio, they moved back to Elizabethtown. Chuck got a job at the PNC Bank.
He was excited in 1986 when he signed on as youth minister of Radcliff Assembly of God church.
“Chuck loved to play the guitar and sing in church,” Janet said. “I grew up in the Pilgrim Holiness church in Elizabethtown and he in the Church of Christ in Ohio. He loved Jesus and gave many, many hours to the church.”
'Brother Chuck is not coming home'
The Radcliff church, with a congregation of a few hundred, planned an end-of-the-school-year bus trip in 1988 to Kings Island Amusement Park near Cincinnati, about 177 miles away .
“Chuck was planning to take Charlie and Mandy on the trip but they had been acting up and I had grounded them,” said the mother.
“I told Chuck I would stay home with them and they could go next year. I was in nursing school at that time so I also was tired. And at that point in my life, I wasn’t going to church that much. But Chuck was really dedicated.”
Funny some of the little things one recalls on a date that never leaves you.
“When I got up that Saturday morning, I opened up the refrigerator. I was looking for a sausage biscuit and I saw it was gone. Chuck had to take it and I just laughed.”
Janet expected her husband home late that night. “I had waited and waited for him. We didn’t have a cell phone so the only thing I could do was to wait.”
At about 1 a.m., a friend from Radcliff called Janet while her children were sleeping and “said something had happened to the bus and that I should call the church.
“I called the church and heard a lot of commotion in the background. I was just told I needed to come to the church. I didn’t understand but heard that John Pearman was dead.”
Pearman, a local court clerk, was the bus driver and part-time associate pastor of the church.
Janet Kytta called her mother to watch the children while she went to the church.
“I remember it was all lit up. There were police cars, troopers and the media. I went into the church and saw a family praying in the corner. One of the walls had a list of persons taken to hospitals and another list of the missing. Chuck’s name was on the list of the missing.”
The 30-year-old wife said she “couldn’t figure out why he would be missing.”
Then Pastor Don Tennison said he wanted to talk to Janet in his office. She said she saw Conrad Garcia Jr. break down. “He was covered in soot and dirt.” It was later learned Garcia kicked open the back door of the 1977 bus to let some of the 67 on board exit.
The pastor told Janet, “Brother Chuck is not coming home.”
“I started crying and then went to the floor. A lady state trooper picked me up and said I had to call Chuck’s family. I told her I couldn’t. She said I had to because they would see it on CNN. I called. Chuck’s Dad answered the phone and I told him what happened.”
Janet Kytta said she doesn’t remember leaving the church and going back home. “I do recall I didn’t wake up Charlie and Mandy. I decided to let them sleep and then tell them later in the morning. I knew their lives would never be the same.”
At 10:55 on the night of May 14, 1988, a Toyota pickup driven by a drunken factory worker named Larry Mahoney crossed the median, struck the Radcliff church bus and ruptured its unprotected, filled 60-gallon gasoline tank, causing a ferocious fire.
Mahoney, then 34, had spent the day drinking. That night he was traveling north in the southbound lane of Interstate 71 in Carrolll County. The church bus had left Kings Island about 9 p.m. and had stopped near Carrollton to refuel.
Twenty-four youngsters and three adults on the bus were killed. A dozen other passengers suffered disfiguring burns.
Besides altering many lives, the tragedy led to many laws and police procedures.
'Lord, I'm coming home'
The hospital throughout that night in Carrollton was a chaotic scene. Parents rushed into the hospital to see if their children were there or were fatalities on the bus.
Some of the survivors started talking to reporters about “Banana.” That was the nickname for youth pastor Chuck Kytta. Say the name fast and you can understand the nickname.
The survivors said Kytta, when flames were around him on the bus, threw his arms up into the air and cried out, “Lord, I’m coming home,” before falling back over to the driver’s seat.
“That was Chuck,” said his wife. “That didn’t surprise me. His faith was strong. I never gave up on God but I didn’t understand it, why it had to be that way.”
Janet Kytta went to Carrollton that Sunday morning. “I took his dental records to the state medical examiner so he could be positively identified” and she later went to the state medical examiner’s office in Frankfort “to learn exactly how he died.”
“That Sunday, we were told there was a planned meeting with family members at a hotel near the National Guard Armory in Carrollton where the bus was taken,” she said. “I took the dental records to the hotel.”
Janet also attended Mahoney’s trial in Carrollton. Son Charlie often accompanied her. Daughter Mandy dealt with Grave’s disease, a form of hyperthyroidism, after the crash and stayed with her grandmother when her mother and brother went to the trial.
“The loss of their dad was devastating to the children. Charlie grieved a lot. Even after Charlie got married, his wife, Leila, said he would get quiet, somber and heavy whenever May 14 rolled around.
“Leila finally just told him he was blessed with her and a beautiful daughter and he had to think on that and not about death.”
Mahoney, a quiet man who had been arrested once before for DUI, was convicted of 27 counts of manslaughter in the second degree, 16 counts of assault in the second degree and 27 counts of wanton endangerment.
He said he had no memory of the crash.
Mahoney left prison in September 1999, after serving 10 years and 11 months. He has declined all media requests over the years for an interview.
“My son and daughter grew up without a dad because of Larry Mahoney,” said Janet Kytta .
“I just would like for him to say he was sorry, to tell me he was sorry, to express remorse for what he did. But everyone needs to be held accountable.
“It has always stuck in my head at the bus crash trial when Larry Mahoney’s friend talked about his hesitation in taking away Larry's keys and that Larry promised to go right home. He wouldn't have known it but he would have saved 27 lives and countless injuries if he had done that.”
Chuck Kytta was buried in Elizabethtown near the graves of Janet’s parents.
A different life, a tragedy relived
Three years after the Carrollton bus crash, Janet remarried. They had two children – a daughter and a son — and were divorced in 2003.
Janet later decided to attend Rhema Bible College in Broken Arrow, Okla., near Tulsa.
“I was anxious to learn about healing in the scriptures, and their Word of Faith. I needed that time dedicated to the study of the Word,” she said.
In 2004, Janet married Gary Hancock of Oklahoma and worked as a nurse at a Tulsa hospital. They live in Oologah, Okla,, and Janet works as a nurse in the surgery department at a cancer hospital. Daughter Mandy now lives in North Carolina.
Son Charlie married Leila Curry of Broken Arrow, Okla., and got a degree in aviation from Oklahoma State University. They had a daughter, Amanda.
Charlie and Leila met while working at a McDonald’s on his 17th birthday. She turned 18, 10 days later.
They married a year later and spent the next 14 years going to college, working, buying a house and having a daughter.
“Charlie looked so much like Chuck. He sounded so much like his dad. Charlie was reserved, private while his dad was always outgoing. They both were good men.”
Janet was working at the hospital on Aug. 31, 2010, when she noticed on her cell phone a call from daughter-in-law Leila.
“A nurse shortly afterwards said I had a call at the hospital, that my husband, Gary, wanted to talk to me. He said there’s been a bad accident, that Charlie was on his way to work at Omni Air International in Tulsa and a guy speeding hit Charlie’s car and Charlie died at the scene.”
Charlie Kytta was 32. He was about a mile from his job as a director of dispatch. Before he left for work that morning, he kissed his wife and daughter goodbye.
Police say Cody Allen Zimmer, 22, of Tulsa, was arrested and charged in April 2011 of first-degree manslaughter in the death of Charlie Kytta. They said his blood contained several medications, including the anti-anxiety drug Xanax, muscle relaxer Flexenil and sedative Ambien at three times the therapeutic level.
Zimmer’s SUV crossed the center median on state Highway 11 and struck Kytta’s car head-on.
Zimmer pleaded no contest in September 2013 and was sentenced to 15 years, with the first 10 years in prison and the next five suspended .
The media in the area reported that this marked the second time the Kytta family had been affected by an intoxicated driver. They noted that Charlie Kytta’s father was killed by a drunken driver in 1988 in Kentucky.
“One of the police officers working Charlie’s case,” said Charlie’s mother, ”told me part of his training focused on the Carrollton bus crash.
'It takes years to recover'
Janet Kytta Hancock, at 60, still is a nurse, mother and grandmother. She comes home to Kentucky occasionally to visit her relatives in Elizabethtown.
Five years ago, she attended the showing at an Elizabethtown theatre of the documentary film Impact: After the Crash, which re-enacted the Carrollton bus crash.
Chuck Kytta’s younger brother, Jimmy Kytta, played him in the film.
“Oh, Jimmy looked so much like Chuck,” Janet said.
Janet still has the blue suit Chuck loved to wear. Authorities found on the bus and gave to her his wedding band.
“It takes years to recover a normal feeling after losing a close family member in such a way as I lost Chuck and Charlie,” Janet said. “Every time there is a graduation or marriage or other family event they aren't there."
While driving on the roads today Janet Hancock said she often notices school buses with pop-out windows, better exits and other improved safety conditions.
“I think that some good did come out of the Carrollton bus crash. I also think of Chuck and Charlie. You would have liked them.”