Our precious loss: May 14, 1988: From park fun to roadway tragedy

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By Jeff D'Alessio

It wasn’t until a few days before the trip to King’s Island north of Cincinnati that Jerry and Jeff Wheeler knew for certain they would be allowed to attend.

“I remember begging mom to let us go,” said Jerry Wheeler. “I wanted to go to maybe meet some new people. It was a really fun day leading up to what happened on the way home.”

What happened on the way home, 25 years later, still cuts its survivors to the core. Family members, friends and their communities were — and still are — stricken irrevocably with heartbreak stemming from the Radcliff First Assembly of God bus crash that May night in 1988.

“It still doesn’t seem real that something like that could happen,” Quinton Higgins said. “It was a day of a lot of fun. It was like having a pot of gold as a kid.”

The day was sunny, ideal for walking around the amusement park and enjoying ride after ride in the 70-degree warmth.

“It was a perfect spring day,” said Jason Booher. “It was one of the prettiest days that I can remember. It was one of the first times in my life that I didn’t have to tag around with my parents.

“Before the crash, it was one of the best days I had known in my life,” he added. “Little did I know it would be one of the most tragic days in my life.”

While many of the 40 people who survived the crash have tried to remember the hours of fun, food and camaraderie at the park, everything is overshadowed by what happened around 11 that night.

A drunken Larry Mahoney, heading north in the southbound lane of Interstate 71, rammed his black pickup truck into the church bus, setting off a chain of flames and death that forever warped this region of Kentucky and stained the lives of its survivors.

Twenty-seven people died, some within seconds of the crash, as the 60-gallon gas tank — filled just minutes earlier — ignited and exploded through the bus and into packed seats of petrified children and adults.

For Harold Dennis and his sister, Kim, getting to go on the trip came as a surprise. He said they thought they weren’t going to be able to attend because of the cost.

“It made it even more exciting that we were getting to go because of that,” he said. “We didn’t have a worry in the world that day.”

New friendships bloomed and old ones solidified that Saturday. Many of those attending were not church members, but friends of church members.

One of Higgins’ best friends, Anthony Marks, had invited him. Higgins didn’t find out his friend had died in the crash until he saw a list of victims on television while he was at Kosair Children’s Hospital with third-degree burns.

“I just started screaming and crying,” Higgins said. “I was devastated.”

Many in the group had never been to King’s Island, and it was a trip near the end of another school year to look forward to.

“Just a day in the sun, wind in our hair thinking the scariest thing was the ‘BEAST’ we all wanted to ride while we were there,” Jennifer Scoville Brownlee wrote in an email. “The whole time miles away, Larry Mahoney was creating our fate. This man’s choice to drink and drive took away 27 lives right in front of our eyes. Leaving 40 of us to deal with survivor’s guilt and shame that we couldn’t do anything but pray.”

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