Kentucky Crash Survivors Prepare for Anniversary Events

By BRUCE SCHREINER | May 15, 2013

They are reaching middle age, in the midst of raising children and building careers. A quarter century has elapsed since an amusement park outing turned into a terrifying night, when they escaped from an old school bus that burst into flames after a drunken driver slammed into it.

Twenty-four children and three adults heading home from the church trip died in the nation’s worst alcohol-related highway catastrophe. It happened on May 14, 1988, along a rural stretch of Interstate 71 near Carrollton, Ky., situated between Louisville and Cincinnati.

Forty people, mostly youngsters, managed to escape the flames through windows or the rear exit as the bus turned into a fireball. It took months for some survivors to recover from burns, broken bones and lungs damaged by smoke. But the memories still linger.

“I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t have some aspect of it in my mind,” said Quinton Higgins, who suffered burns and lung damage.

Higgins, now 40, was invited on the outing to Kings Island amusement park in Ohio by his best friend, Anthony Marks, who died in the crash.

“I always wonder what he’d be like at our age today,” Higgins said.

Crash survivors are pursuing a cross-section of careers – from teaching, selling real estate, working in factories, serving in the military to driving a school bus.

The trauma of watching friends and classmates perish in the blaze took an emotional toll. Some were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Survivors plan to join victims’ relatives Tuesday evening for a public memorial service in Radcliff on the 25th anniversary of the crash. The following night in Elizabethtown, they will attend a public screening of a new documentary recounting the horrific event that spurred campaigns to toughen drunken-driving laws and improve bus safety.

The church group was headed home to Radcliff, about 30 miles south of Louisville, when their bus was hit by a pickup truck driven by Larry Mahoney, a chemical-plant worker who was driving in the wrong direction. Mahoney survived with broken ribs, cuts and bruises.

The state charged Mahoney with murder but a jury convicted him of assault, manslaughter, wanton endangerment and drunken driving. He was given a 16-year sentence but spent less than 10 years in prison – the rest was deducted for good behavior.

Crash survivor Christy Cox said she was experiencing “an emotional wave” leading up to the anniversary.

Cox, now 38, suffered severe burns and her father – John Pearman, who drove the church bus – died in the crash. Her childhood sweetheart who sat next to her on the bus, Wayne Cox, was treated for smoke inhalation that night. They are now married and have four children.

“After 25 years it’s amazing sometimes how fresh your wounds still are,” she said.

Though the survivors and victims’ families went their own way through the years, there’s a kinship forged from their shared tragedy, said Karolyn Nunnallee, whose 10-year-old daughter Patty was the youngest of those killed in the crash.

Nunnallee, who became a national advocate against drunken driving, said many of the survivors are now the same age she was when the crash occurred.

“We’ve kind of been thrown together,” she said. “I feel like we’re almost like family.”

Paul Richwalsky, who prosecuted Mahoney in 1989, is still struck by “the utter senselessness of it all.”

Richwalsky now heads the DUI division in the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office in Louisville, prosecuting what he considers “the most preventable crime there is.”

Twenty-five years later, he still remembers exacting details of the crash that horrified the nation. How Mahoney’s truck somehow went between two oncoming semi-tractor trailers moments before he slammed into the church bus. How Mahoney’s drinking buddies took his keys from him that fateful night, but then relented and gave the keys back when Mahoney promised to go straight home.

And Richwalsky still chokes with emotion when he thinks about the victims and their families. There was the couple that wanted their daughter to drive home with them from the amusement park but were talked into letting her ride back with friends on the bus. The girl died in the crash. Or the boy who tried to pull his burning brother from the bus.

“It’s something you’ll never forget,” Richwalsky said.

Harold Dennis was 14 when he was pulled unconscious from the rear of the bus by a passer-by. He suffered severe burns to his face, torso and shoulder as well as lung damage. He underwent a series of skin grafts, had eyebrow implants and underwent ear reconstruction surgery.

He went on to play football at the University of Kentucky. Now 39, he is a medical device salesman and a motivational speaker. He’s also co-producer of the new documentary, “Impact: After the Crash,” which includes comments from survivors that he says should serve as inspiration for others struck by tragedy.

“All those families up in Newtown, Conn., they kissed their children goodbye to go to school and they never see their 6-year-old, their 7-year-old, their 8-year-old again,” he said. “How do you deal with that? We have examples of that from people in this film who have dealt with that for a quarter of a century.”

Christy Cox said she dealt with her grief in different ways at various stages of her life. The anger she felt as a teenager gave way to denial, then to a desire to help others. The stay-at-home mom volunteers at school and at church. Her husband is a partner in a web marketing company.

Several survivors went through counseling and others wish they had done so, she said.

While survivors and victims’ families struggled to put their lives back together, the tragedy shook the country out of its complacency about drunken driving, said Nunnallee, a former national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

The result, she said, was tougher standards nationwide that lowered the legal limit for driving under the influence and “zero tolerance” laws that punish drivers under the legal drinking age who have even a trace of alcohol in their system.

“The Carrollton crash really brought the issue back to the forefront,” she said. “We’ve been fighting feverishly ever since.”

Despite the tougher laws and greater public awareness, 27 people on average are killed each day nationwide as a result of drunken driving, she said.

The tragedy also spurred changes to make buses safer. The modifications included flame-retardant seats, fuel tank cages, push-out windows, left-side emergency exits, escape hatches in the roof and better bus lighting, Nunnallee said.

The bus hit by Mahoney was owned by a Radcliff church, First Assembly of God, which had bought it as surplus property from an area school district.

For the past three years, Higgins has boarded a bus every day for work, driving children to and from school in Hardin County.

“For the most part it doesn’t bother me,” he said. “Then I do have those moments to where you have all your memories come back and hit you at one time.”

Mahoney, who was released from prison in 1999, has shied away from talking to the media. In an interview in late 1991, he said he was haunted by what he did, though he had no memory of it.

“I woke up in the hospital and they told me,” Mahoney said at the time. “It was hard for me to believe. It was like a nightmare.”

Carroll County Judge-Executive Harold Tomlinson, who has known him for years, said Mahoney has a job and “seems to be doing OK.” He didn’t say where Mahoney works or offer any other details about his life.

“He’s the type of person that if he could give his life to bring one of those children back, I think he would do it,” Tomlinson said.

Dennis said he wishes Mahoney would go public to tell his story as a way to warn others about the perils of drinking and driving.

“I’m not trying to hear an apology to me,” he said. “There is so much good he can do.”

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