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Zach Jaquess heard stories about how 27 lives were lost late on a May night long before he was born along Interstate 71.
But it wasn’t until last Saturday, when he spent time as part of the filming of the documentary “Impact: After the Crash” that the 16-year-old John Hardin High School junior could fully appreciate what those involved went through. A church bus from Radcliff carrying 67 caught fire after being plowed into by a drunken driver going in the wrong direction.
One of those children was his father.
“When we did the impression of the bus exploding, it shocked me,” Zach said. “... It was emotional; they were lucky they got off the bus.”
His dad, Darrin, was a 15-year-old sophomore at North Hardin High School when the crash happened May 14, 1988, in Carrollton. He was a year younger than Zach, the middle of his three sons.
On that Saturday night as the Radcliff First Assembly of God bus headed home from a day-long trip to King’s Island, Larry Mahoney was drinking too much. Already convicted once for driving under the influence, he was drunk that night, got behind the wheel of his black Toyota truck with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.24, more than double the legal limit, and headed to the interstate.
He was headed north in the southbound lane.
The result? Twenty-seven dead, 34 others injured and life changed forever for thousands in an instant.
Growing up, Darrin made his children aware of the bus crash, what he gained from it and the friends he lost.
When the documentary, which is expected to be released in May on the 25th anniversary of the crash, was seeking cast members, Darrin asked Zach and an older son, Terrick, if they were interested.
Terrick missed out because of a commitment at the University of Kentucky. Zach, apprehensive at first, decided to go.
“I told him it would mean the world to me, and it does,” Darrin said.
Zach said among the scenes shot in Winchester were students exiting cars as they headed off to the trip and getting on the bus. The crash scene was shot by using various sets of lights and a smoke machine.
“It was amazing from afar, how real it looked,” said Zach’s mother, Bridgitte Higdon.
“I understand it more now and what happened,” Zach said.
Darrin is pleased a documentary is being made by Jason Epperson and Epic Films. He thinks the story needs to be told and remembered as a constant tap on the shoulder for anyone who might decide to drink and drive.
“I still think about it every day,” Darrin said. “Just a lot of different things will go through my head, but it’s there every day.” He said occasionally, without warning, he can still smell the burning bus.
Darrin lost his best friend in the crash, Anthony Marks, who sat seven rows from the back of the bus, just a few feet away from him. Darrin was asleep when the crash happened and was pulled from the smoldering wreckage.
Richard Gohn, who sat next to him in the aisle seat, was among the 24 children who died in the crash.
Darrin spent two months in Louisville’s University Hospital burn unit with second-degree burns to his body and smoke inhalation. He spent three weeks on life support.
That he is able to share his story and see it through the eyes of a son is a life victory in itself.
“It puts me in my mother’s position to have my child on that bus, and it’s tough,” he said.
Darrin, now 40, said he doesn’t want to forget about that night, and he doesn’t want others to either.
The day Mahoney left prison after serving 10 years and 11 months of a 16-year sentence for his actions, Darrin watched him walk off to his new life.
“I forgave him,” Darrin said. “I would love to sit down and talk to him. I’d like to know what was going through his head that night. I would like to take him back to what we went through.”
The physical and emotional scars won’t go away for Darrin or many others. It’s a hard way to learn lessons, though. That is something he has told his sons, including his youngest, Rylan, a student at Bluegrass Middle School.
“I got a true lesson from what happened,” Darrin said. “It’s about drinking and driving and not taking your life for granted. I saw how I was treating my mother, being a single parent. I didn’t make it easy on her.”
Zach was among several locals who took part in the re-enactment scene and spent the day in Winchester.
Epperson and Harold Dennis, another of the crash survivors, have been working on the film for several years.
“It’s a story that should be told not just from one person’s eyes, but from everyone,” Darrin said. “It’s something that needs to be remembered.”
Jeff D’Alessio can be reached at (270) 505-1757 or firstname.lastname@example.org