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Everyone on the crash scene the night of May 14, 1988, believed anyone who was still alive was off the bus. And then Carey Aurentz emerged from the wreckage.
Carey Aurentz Cummins’ thoughts often return to that May night, to a church bus returning home to Radcliff after a day at King’s Island in Ohio. She remembers sitting in the front row aisle seat, door side, talking with Phillip Morgan, Billy Nichols and Emillie Thompson, who invited her on the trip.
Seconds later, her familiar life came to an end as a new one began.
Morgan and Nichols died in the bus crash that killed 27 people, including 24 children, when a drunken Larry Mahoney rammed a black pickup truck into the Radcliff First Assembly of God bus while going the wrong way on Interstate 71 four miles from Carrollton.
Thompson, who had been sitting near the back when the trip home began, moved near the front when the bus stopped for gas along its journey. She was among the 27.
Cummins was 65 percent covered in third-degree burns, especially on the back of her body, and second-degree burns to her face. She underwent more surgeries than she can recall — Cummins figures it was more than 30 — and spent two months in what was then Humana Hospital University of Louisville.
Her right leg was so badly burned it had to be amputated mid-calf 12 days after the crash. She now wears a prosthesis.
Of the 40 people who managed a way out of the bus that night, Cummins was the last.
Twenty-five years is a long time to think back on your life. Jason Booher and Cheryl Pearman were tending to Pearman’s cousin, Christy, in the grassy median on that Saturday night on Interstate 71 when for some reason, Booher happened to look back over a shoulder at the charred bus.
Out of the back, a body slumped onto the road.
There was another possible survivor.
Then 14, Aurentz had the longest path to freedom. To this day, she still isn’t sure how she escaped when almost everyone around her didn’t.
She had been resting on the trip home, not quite asleep because she was able to hear her friends’ conversation, she said. Then came the collision and the ensuing whoosh of fire. The chaos on I-71 had begun.
She tried to get into the aisle after being jarred from her seat.
“I knew it was fire because I could feel the fire,” she said. “I had a voice in my head tell me not to turn around. Everybody was in the aisle; it was chaos.”
She remembers passing out and dreaming about roller coasters.
“When I woke up, I remembered thinking, ‘Oh my God, I am going to die,’” she said.
Now a married mother of a 4-year-old son, Cummins doesn’t completely recall how she was able to go from the front of the bus to the back. She believes she pulled herself up from one seat and fell over it, and then started her journey again. Over and over again. It became an unimaginable trek inside the bus.
Finally, she had made it to the end of the bus and collapsed outside.
Booher said once the back of the bus was clear, everyone believed anyone still alive was off the bus.
“I told Cheryl to come on and help me move the person over to the grass median with the other injured survivors,” Booher recalled. “We ran over there to Carey, who was lifeless on the pavement at the back of the bus. We couldn’t tell who it was laying there because they were covered in black smoke and burnt severely. Cheryl and I started to pick her up by her feet and hands, but Cheryl said her legs were too hot and (it) burned to pick her up by her legs. So, I picked her up in my arms and carried her over to the rest of the victims in the grass median.”
Cummins remembers being desperate to find a way out, despite her injuries.
“I’m not sure if I just got mad, but I wasn’t going to die on that bus,” she said. “I knew my legs weren’t working right and there was no one around and I fell onto the pavement ... I remember looking up into the sky. I was saying, “Please help me, someone help me.”
The first few years after the crash, Cummins desperately sought a sense of normalcy for life as a teenager, she said.
“I acclimated myself back in school to feel as much as I could as a normal teenager,” she said. “I didn’t, but I tried.”
As part of a military family, she moved from the area in 1990 and graduated from high school in Virginia. She attended college and around her junior year, when panic attacks became severe, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
She has worked in the medical field and now spends most of her time as a mother to Aiden. She is married to Jason Cummins and has lived in Yorktown, Va., since 2009.
She said Aiden can be a lot like her: spunky, stubborn and persistent. Those traits, she said, helped her 25 years ago.
“I don’t think if I was not that way, I would have made it out of the bus,” she said.
She said she has reservations about her son one day riding in a school bus.
“I see a school bus and I think of the incident,” she said.
Cummins said it was a very difficult stretch of her life after the bus crash. “And if I think about it now, it’s still very difficult.”
The scars — physical and emotional — remain. Every day she sees what that night took from her.
But it also gave her something.
She tries to live life with no regrets. She went scuba diving and saw a shark.
“And I haven’t been scuba diving since,” she said.
“If there is something that I want to do, I ask myself “Will I regret it if I don’t do it?”‘ she said.
“... I am unbelievably fortunate that I survived and was able to get out,” she added. “...I treasure what I have. There were 27 that weren’t able to finish their lives.”
Jeff D’Alessio can be reached at (270) 505-1757 or firstname.lastname@example.org