Remember the lives lost 25 years ago

RADCLIFF, Ky. -- With prayers, songs and personal stories, emotional speakers urged the public to remember the lives lost 25 years ago Tuesday in America's most horrific drunken-driving accident, as well as the continuing struggles of those who survived.

"Tragedy struck us all" in the Carrollton bus crash, said Radcliff Mayor JJ Duvall, fighting back tears as he spoke. "The tragedy changed us all. And it still changes us today."

On May 14, 1988, 27 children and adults died in the fiery wreck after a drunk driver heading the wrong way on Interstate 71 in Carroll County smashed into a church school bus, puncturing the gas tank. Thirty-four more passengers were injured, many seriously burned while escaping from the flash fire.

Tuesday's anniversary introduced the first screenings of a new documentary about the tragedy, "Impact: After the Crash," as well as a new federal push to make drunken-driving laws even stricter. 

Many of the survivors and family members of victims on hand praised the National Transportation Safety Board's recommendation Tuesday to lower the blood-alcohol limit for drunk driving from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent, as well as enact other changes.

Just before the service, survivors and families gathered at the nearby Hardin Memorial Gardens around a granite monument that lists the names of those who died and and those who survived. Many hugged one another and wiped away tears.

Lee Williams, 63, who lost his wife and two young daughters in the crash — and later married the widow of the bus driver killed in the blaze — helped lay a wreath with 27 white roses, one for each victim killed. He said he was grateful that the public was remembering the tragedy.  Others agreed. But some said the anniversary was especially difficult.

"I've gotten text messages all day long from friends supporting me," said Karolyn Nunnalle, who lost her daughter in the crash and formerly served as the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "Even 25 years later, that loss, that void, still remains."  Many traded memories.

"It feels like it happened yesterday," said Juan Holt, 42, a survivor who came back from Virginia for the first time since the crash. "It's given me some closure, seeing everyone together."

Jan Withers, the current national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said during the memorial that the crash had a profound impact on attitudes about drunk driving.

Kentucky enacted stricter penalties for driving under the influence as a result of the crash. And the disaster helped inspire strong bus-safety standards, including more exit doors and flame-retardant seats and push-out windows.  But Withers said the nation still had further to go.  

Attendees including members of Radcliff First Assembly of God, where the bus originated before heading to Kings Island amusement park for the day.  The Rev. Martha Tennison, former pastor of the church, recalled the excitement of the young children before leaving. And she recalled the pain that followed, saying that "tragedy broke our hearts, but not our spirits."  

"Every day for 25 years we have called every one of your names in prayer," she said, speaking to victims and survivors and choking up as she spoke.

Among those in the audience were victims' advocates who helped after the crash, Fort Knox officials who aided in the aftermath and the prosecutor who pursued the case against drunk driver Larry Mahoney, who served a decade in prison.

Harold Dennis, a survivor who suffered serious burns and helped on the documentary, said the crash was a defining moment for him. "It made me who I am today. ... To be together in this room, we've all come out victorious in the end."

Each of the names of the dead and survivors was read aloud slowly in the school, where many on the bus had been students a quarter-century ago.

Carey Aurentz Cummins was the only child survivor to make it out of the front rows of the bus, suffering severe burns on nearly 60 percent of her body and losing her leg below the knee. Now married with a child, the Virginia nurse spoke about being a survivor.  "Every day I live with the joy and the guilt," she said.