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Our precious loss: 25 years after the bus crash

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A church youth outing to a theme park ends in a fiery crash.

By Jeff D'Alessio

Some days, without warning, Darrin Jaquess is taken back to that dark place on Interstate 71 late on a Saturday night in May, nearly 25 years ago, after a fun-filled, memory-making day at King’s Island.

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Harold Dennis, Carey Aurentz Cummins and Ciaran Foran Madden are reminded of that night with a look in the mirror or when they get out of bed each day.

 Jaquess remembers the smell from the burning school bus that had carried 67 people to the amusement park and the start of the return trip to Radcliff. Only 40 would make it home alive.

“I never know when it’s going to hit me, but when it does, it’s like that night all over again,” Jaquess said. “It smells like a faint burn. It’s hard to describe, but it’s the smell I smelled that night. There was a lot of things burning that night on the bus.”

Twenty-seven people, including 24 children, died in the May 14, 1988, crash near Carrollton that night when a black pickup truck driven by a drunken Larry Mahoney struck the church bus from Radcliff First Assembly of God.

Mahoney, who lived in nearby Owen County, was driving north in a southbound lane of I-71 with a blood alcohol level later revealed to be 0.24 — more than two times the legal limit then and three times the legal limit now. He would serve 10 years and 11 months in prison for the deaths.

Mahoney was convicted of 27 counts of second-degree manslaughter, 16 counts of second-degree assault, 27 counts of first-degree wanton endangerment and one count of driving while under the influence of intoxicants.

It remains the deadliest drunken driving crash in United States history.

For some survivors, as weeks turned to months and then into years, that night remains a snapshot in their minds, etched deep in their memories that time won’t erase.

Then children, many now are parents. Some survivors can reel off the actions of others, noises, smells and chaos that ensued after the collision triggered a fire ball through a crowded bus with few paths to escape.

Many survivors have a hard time finding words to adequately describe what they experienced from the moment of impact to what followed. There have been sleepless nights, tears, fears and agonizing paths to physical recovery.

“It was horrific and unimaginable,” Cummins said. “It’s amazing to me that 40 of us were able to get out of that bus; it was a deathtrap.”

Cummins, a married mother of a 4-year-old son, suffered third-degree burns on about 65 percent of her body. Part of her right leg was amputated 12 days after the crash because of fourth-degree burns.

For Dennis, Madden and others, there are facial scars from that night. There’s no hiding from the reflection of the bus crash.

Dennis, who excelled in football and soccer at North Hardin High School and later played at the University of Kentucky, has been the face of the bus crash for many. His face was deeply scarred. While he can’t give a specific number, he knows he had at least 10 surgeries to aid his recovery.

“I couldn’t hide from it,” Dennis said. “The first few months, the first few years, were hard. But this is who I am.”

Dennis has shared his story countless times to young and old, attempting to turn a night of tragedy into a platform for anyone who may listen to the dangers of drinking and driving.

In some ways, he says, being in the public eye more than most has been therapeutic for him.

Others have dealt with the crash in various ways. Some who were together that night, like Kim Farmer and Jess Durrance, Pam Uhey and Larry Flowers and Wayne Cox and Christy Pearman, are married.

“We were just friends back then,” said Kim, who was pulled from the bus by her now husband. “I think he had a crush on me then, and then after that, we started hanging out more and started dating that September.”

The couple will have been married 19 years in June. They have four children together.

Jerry Wheeler lost a child, a 6-month-old son, Isaak, nine years ago. That loss, coupled with haunting memories of the crash, brought him to a point in his life to seek professional therapy for a time.

He has, with apprehension, driven by the crash site near Carrollton.

“I’ve tried,” he said. “Maybe three or four times. It’s weird, it’s almost like a second sense that it’s coming around the corner. It’s just an eerie feeling to go there.”

He never has returned to King’s Island. He was 14 at the time of the crash. He says time hasn’t made it easier for him.

“I think of it quite frequently,” he said. “Now more than ever.”

For decades, Wheeler avoided Madden, who was severely burned in the crash. She sat behind him on the return trip and he wondered if he had impeded her escape as he sought an exit.

“I avoided her for 20 years,” he said. “I’d see her in Wal-Mart, I would go another way. If I saw her at a restaurant, I would leave. It was just the guilty part for me.”

Jason Booher, now a successful high school boys’ basketball coach at Holmes High School in Covington, sat in the front of the bus on the way up to King’s Island and found a spot near the back on the return trip.

“When we hit, I just remember being shoved into the back of the seat in front of me and then the explosion,” he said. “It was just awful from there.”

A married father of three, Dennis said he has mailed a letter to Mahoney with hopes that he would agree to an interview for the documentary, “IMPACT: After the Crash.” Dennis said he never heard from Mahoney, who has stayed out of the public eye since he left prison in 1999 after serving less than 11 years of a 16-year sentence.

“I hoped he would feel compelled to not only speak out to the families for the first time,” Dennis said, “but for young kids in a position to make the same kind of decision he made that night.”

Asked if he felt Mahoney’s sentence was fair — less than five months served for each lost life — Dennis said everything is subjective.

“I tend to not think about it like that,” he said. “Hopefully, he learned something in the time he was incarcerated. You can’t put a number of years on those lives that are gone. The system finds a way to do that, I know.”

The word “survivors” is a loose term for those who lived through that night.

Some were the children who didn’t die in the crash, and all the parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, brother and sisters left with a void in their hearts or emotional wounds from the night.

Others were classmates.

Tammy Barker of Vine Grove had attended J.T. Alton Middle School with some of the children who did not survive. One was Phillip Morgan.

“He was so sweet,” Walker said. “We were in band together. All the girls had a crush on him and my best friend was in love with him.”

She found out about the crash the next morning from a friend who ran to her house yelling, “They’re gone!”

“I don’t think I have gotten over it,” she said. “I don’t think I ever will.”

Many of those who survived the crash plan to gather Tuesday. Some plan to be at North Hardin High School to hear Booher, who lost his best friend, Chad Witt, in the crash. Many also plan to attend a memorial service that night or a private showing of the documentary.

Jaquess said it will be “a blessing” to see friends and the families of those who didn’t make it out of the bus.

“You really never get to hear about the ones who don’t get to speak and their loved ones,” he said of the deceased. “It will be a reunion for us and a lot of reminiscing. It’s going to be very emotional because we went through something together like we went through on that night and something we go through every day.”

 

Those who died:

Jennifer Ann Arnett, 13

Cynthia Anne Atherton, 13

Sandy Jean Brewer, 12

Joshua Michael Conyers, 14

Mary Catheryn Daniels, 14

Julie A. Earnest, 12

Kashawn R. Etheredge, 14

Shannon Rae Fair, 14

Dwailla Dawn Fischel, 12

Richard Keith Gohn, 19

Lori Kathleen Holzer, 11

Charles John Kytta, 34

Anthony Marks, 15

April LuAnn Mills, 15

Phillip Lee Morgan, 13

Tina A. Mustain, 14

William J. Nichols Jr., 17

Patricia Nunnallee, 10

John Robert Pearman, 36

Emillie Suzanne Thompson, 13

Crystal Erin Uhey,13

Denise Ellen Voglund, 13

Amy Christine Wheelock, 14

Kristen Joy Williams, 34

M. Joy Williams, 34

Robin Jill Williams, 10

Chad Anthony Witt, 14

 

Those who lived:

Carey Aurentz

Jason Booher

Angela Bryant

Greg Burlem

Amy Constant

Aaron Conyers

Wayne Cox

Tammy Darnell

Harold Dennis

Kim Dennis

Jess Durrance

Kim Farmer

Larry Austin Flowers

Ciaran Foran

Conrad Garcia

Kimberly Glover

Sandra Ann Glover

Jamie Hardesty

Thomas W. Hertz III

Quinton Higgins Jr.

Juan Holt

Stephanie Howard

Darrin Jaquess

Michael Jefferson

Katrina McNickle

Katrina Muller

Eustacio Obregon

Monica Obregon

Janie Padgett

Cheryl Pearman

Christy Pearman

Joseph Percefull

Jennifer Scoville

James Slaughter

Allen Tennison

Eric Thompson

Pamela Jean Uhey

David Walliser

Jeff Wheeler

Jerry Wheeler

 

Jeff D’Alessio can be reached at (270) 505-1757 or jdalessio@thenewsenterprise.com