Memorial shines light on 25 years of healing

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Service allows survivors, families moment to reflect, reconnect

By Marty Finley

Martha Tennison still can hear the clamor of excited children looking forward to a day at King’s Island.


Saturday morning brought with it the relentless energy of youth. Tennison, who pastored Radcliff First Assembly of God with her husband, Don, in May 1988, remembers her husband praying with a school bus full of smiling faces as they set out for the amusement park north of Cincinnati. As he left them, he could see a child’s face filling every window, little hands waving.

“I remember my last conversation with them,” Tennison told a crowded gymnasium Tuesday night at North Hardin High School, a hush falling over the halls of one of many facilities forever bonded to a fiery crash that claimed 27 lives and changed hundreds of others 25 years ago.

Her husband counted 67 inside the bus.

“Goodbye pastor, we’ll see you this evening,” she remembered them saying.

Then the calls came in. There had been a collision on Interstate 71 in Carroll County. Families gathered at the church, waiting hours for answers while clinging to hope. The death toll rose. Grief settled like a new skin.

“Every day, for 25 years, we have called every one of your names in prayer,” Tennison said, her voice breaking, “... Until we take our last breath, we will call your names in prayer every day.”

Tragedy toppled a community but could not destroy it. She said families can find hope in the possibility of seeing their loved ones again. Likewise, one can remember those lost, Tennison said, without being enslaved by despair.

“Because of God’s promise for the future, we can live in the present and not be bound by the past,” she said.

Radcliff Mayor J.J. Duvall was 8 years old in May 1988, watching the news about the crash as his father made calls and offered help in any form he could give.

In an age before advanced technology and social media, Duvall said it took hours to receive information about the number of deaths.

Pain engulfed the Hardin County town next to Fort Knox as families were shattered by death and fire, but Duvall said the community was rehabilitated through love and the civility generated by neighbors, friends and strangers. If a shoulder was needed for tears, a car was needed to transport a family to see loved ones in the hospital or food was needed in a moment of bereavement, someone was willing to step up, he said.

“Though we do not share the last names of some, we became a family,” he said.

Harold Dennis permanently wears facial scars from the crash, a teenager not yet coming into his own who was tossed into an unstable reality where friends were dead or recuperating inside a hospital.

“It made me who I am today,” he said.

People heal and grieve at their own pace and all involved have chosen to address the crash in whatever manner makes them comfortable, he said. For Dennis, he has been vocal about sharing his story with others, learning over time he doesn’t have to be profound or inspirational.

He simply needs to share.

Through talking, Dennis said he tries to speak for those who are no longer able to.

“We have to be proactive,” he said. “We have to continue to be their voice.”

Dennis said the last week has helped splash three-dimensional color on old voices and faces appearing in a grainy and pixelated fashion in his memory. Reconnecting and sharing with those who felt a similar pain has helped him remember.

“You are not alone,” he said.

Karolyn Nunnallee, who lost her 10-year-old daughter Patty in the crash, became a staunch advocate against drunken driving and served as the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Nunnallee said tougher regulations and reforms were adopted after the crash, but drunken driving still claims around 10,000 lives each year and injures thousands more. For families throughout the country, she said, they are living their own personal Carrollton disaster every day.

“What happened to our friends and families still happens every day in this country, and it has got to stop,” she said.

Jan Withers, national president of MADD, watched the deaths impact Radcliff from afar in 1988, but felt her own personal pain in 1992 when her 15-year-old daughter, Alisa Joy, was killed by a drunken driver. Withers said MADD takes the cold, hard statistics of drunken driving and makes them personal, sharing names and stories to put a face on a festering national dilemma.

“We can do more. We must do more,” Withers said. “I think one day we’ll see a country without drunken driving. That will be their legacy, their impact.”

The names of the 27 who lost their lives and those who survived were read and plants were given in honor of those families impacted by the crash. A 67-second moment of silence was held to represent those on the bus.

On a day when the crash once again gained national attention, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell entered the names of the 27 killed into the Congressional record during a speech on the Senate floor.

“If any good can be said to have come from this awful event, it is that it directed national attention on driving safety, the dangers of drunken driving and safety requirements in buses,” McConnell said.

As the memorial neared its close, survivors gathered for group photographs and hugs before departing for a private screening of the documentary “IMPACT: After the Crash.”

Carey Aurentz Cummins said she carries with her a mix of joy and guilt. She finds happiness in her career and family but aches for those who were not as fortunate. Cummins sustained severe burns and a foot amputation through the crash, undergoing numerous surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy.

Reuniting with several survivors this week, she relived old memories and learned how much living the group has accomplished between them.

“By living our lives, we celebrate their lives,” she said.

Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762 or mfinley@thenewsenterprise.com.