LOUISVILLE, Ky. - One earned a football scholarship years after burns and lung damage kept him in the hospital for two months. Another poured her grief into preventing other alcohol-fueled crashes and became president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. A third began speaking publicly about the tragedy only after two decades of staring at scars in the mirror.
Harold Dennis, Karolyn Nunnallee and Ciaran Madden remain linked by the deadliest alcohol-caused highway catastrophe in U.S. history.
On May 14, 1988, Dennis and Madden were teenage passengers on a church-owned school bus headed home from an amusement park. They were pulled from the wreckage of the fiery crash that killed 27 people in northern Kentucky, while Nunnallee lost her 10-year-old daughter.
The tragedy helped change Americans' attitudes toward drunken driving, and may also have contributed to a nationwide decline in alchohol-related highway deaths since the 1980s. Lawmakers in Kentucky took action to improve school bus safety following the crash.
"Not a day goes by that I don't think about the bus accident, because I look at it every morning," says Madden, who suffered severe burns after a drunken driver slammed head-on into the bus. She finally decided to speak out after years of silence because she was angered by reports of a local high school principal arrested on drunken driving charges in April.
Since then, the 34-year-old has written letters about her ordeal to about 30 news outlets, been interviewed on television and has reached out to some of the other 40 survivors.
"I'm tired of being quiet," said the stay-at-home mom who's now married to a school bus driver, yet still finds it difficult to put her own 12-year-old son on a bus each day. "People need to know that we still go through things."
Madden was among the 67 people aboard the bus owned by the First Assembly of God church in Radcliff when a pickup driving the wrong way on Interstate 71 slammed into the vehicle. The collision jolted loose the bus' fuel tank, which was then punctured and ignited. The flames blocked the front entrance, sending screaming children out the windows and to a bottleneck at the rear exit.
Dennis, then 14, was pulled unconscious from the rear of the bus by a passer-by. His face, torso and shoulder sustained third-degree burns, and he suffered lung damage. He spent two months in the hospital, a stay that he said seems longer than the 20 years since.
Walking away from a 'death trap'
Less than a decade after the crash, Dennis earned a football scholarship to the University of Kentucky, and he later started the commercial construction company he runs in Lexington.
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"It almost doesn't seem real, that friends I saw every day at school, that they're gone," said Dennis, now a father of three. "I walked away from a horrific crash like that - not just me but 40 people - walked away from what was a death trap."
The driver of the pickup, Larry Mahoney, was convicted of assault, manslaughter, wanton endangerment and drunken driving, and served 9½ years in prison. Now 54, he has avoided interviews. Calls to a listing in his name in Owen County were not returned.
Mahoney "didn't set out to kill 27 people and maim 19 others," said Nunnallee, whose daughter Patty was the youngest killed in the crash. "That was not his intent, but it happened. And it can happen to anyone."
Nunnallee got involved with her local MADD chapter after the crash and became president of the national organization in 1998. As MADD president, she spoke out against Super Bowl beer ads, and she remains active in her local chapter in Polk County, Fla.
The crash "really ignited outrage and elevated the importance of drunken driving in people's minds because it involved young people," said Ellen Martin, a spokeswoman for National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. She says the public's reaction to the crash helped sustain the momentum of the drunken-driving awareness campaigns, begun earlier in the decade, which spurred a decline in alcohol-related highway deaths from the early '80s to the early '90s.
Kentucky would require that school buses have flame-retardant seats, fuel tank cages, push-out windows and additional emergency exits, exceeding federal standards.
"This tragedy was an object example of how facts on the ground can change public policy," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.
While some were taking public action, speaking out was farthest from Madden's mind for years.
"I ran from it," she said. "My life was centered on surviving."
Now willing to share her story, she recalls in a sanguine tone ordeals that included high school classmates mocking the scars caused by her burns.
"I was teased, I was harassed," said Madden, who still has breathing problems. "But it made me who I am today."