Messages That Matter
(Courier-Journal photo by Bill Luster)
It is 3:19 p.m., and I have no idea what I was doing at this time 30 years ago. I was living in Elizabethtown, Ky., at the time, so chances are I was doing Saturday errands, maybe making plans with my mom. Perhaps we were on our way to Magnolia to see my grandparents. I simply don’t remember.
Hours later, however, around the time when May 14 was ending and May 15 began, that memory is crystal clear. I was awakened from a deep sleep, told some dreadful news by my boss, and sent on an eerie drive north to Carrollton. I was a reporter then, for the News-Enterprise. The bus carrying a group of kids and a few chaperones to and from Kings Island that day was owned by a church in our county. The story was national, but for us, it was very local.
By now, the facts are rote: a Carroll County resident, with a blood alcohol level of more than twice the legal limit in 1988, got into his pick-up truck and began driving. Traveling north on I-71, Larry Mahoney no doubt was unaware that he had steered his vehicle across the grassy median and onto the southbound lanes of I-71. He hit the bus head-on, and the impact was in the worst possible location. The fuel tank, situated just behind the front exit, was ruptured, and the bus became a fireball. Investigators said the temperature inside rose to 1,500 degrees, and that toxic fumes from the burning seat covers became as deadly as the flames. In just a few minutes, 24 children and three adults were dead.
With the anniversary in the news, last night I found myself remembering the details of my “first big story,” as a reporter. Five years ago, I’d heard about the release of a documentary on the tragedy, Impact After the Crash. Although I wanted to see it, mostly because crash survivors were instrumental in the production, I wasn’t eager to revisit the story, the names, the faces, the devastating facts.
I watched it for the first time last night. It is available on Amazon via streaming or DVD. There is also a Facebook page dedicated to the film, the memories of those lost, and to the ongoing journeys of the survivors and families.
The film is very well done. It is unflinching without being gratuitous. It is touching without being cloying. It delivers a powerful message without preaching.
It is the definition of authenticity.
Of the many survivors interviewed in the film, I had met two. Weeks after the tragedy, the most critically injured remained in Louisville hospitals. I made the drive from E’town not knowing if any of the parents would speak to me, let alone permit me to talk to their hurting kids. I wouldn’t have blamed them if they’d kicked me out on sight.
The parents were gracious. I think with the outpouring of love from home, they wanted to give the community some sort of an update. I remember not really knowing what to ask Harold Dennis and Ciaran Foran (now Madden), at the time. Another survivor in the film is Carey Aurentz Cummins. She and Harold were producers on the project. I spoke with Carey’s dad at the hospital in 1988.
The word “strength” is tossed around a great deal when describing people who have come through tough times, whether it’s illness, the death of a loved one, financial ruin, and sometimes a combination of obstacles that can be described as anything from “struggles” to “horrors.”
But sometimes, even the word, “horror” fails to capture the reality. For Harold, Ciaran, Carey, and the other survivors, they have more than earned the right to be described as strong.
These kids about whom I wrote so many years ago are now adults. Most are parents, and have other distinctions. They speak with emotional intelligence, and a combination of world-wise weariness and keen awareness of everything good in their lives.
In 1988, I wasn’t old enough to be their parent, and I was young enough to remember, in detail, my own church trips to Kings Island, Opryland, and Six Flags, riding in a bus as old and as combustible as the one that erupted in flames that terrible night. I was too young to be responsible for the poor design of the bus, or even the tepid penalties for drunken driving on the books. But, I was old enough to feel, deeply, that somehow we had failed these children, and their families. I wondered if anything good would come out of the mess.
Without question, buses are safer now. Drunken driving laws are tougher. Those are very good things.
Viewing Impact After the Crash led me to realize that many, many of the survivors, their families, and the families of those lost, took ownership of that outcome beyond those obvious positive responses. A thread that runs through their comments is about taking control of one’s attitude and optimism.
There’s a maturity about accepting consequences, and how one single decision can alter the course of countless lives. You hear the wisdom of talking through pain, letting go of anger, and perhaps most important, recognizing that the talking and the letting go sometimes have to happen more than once.
Yes, in a way, these individuals will always be kids to me. They are cute tweens with their 80s glasses and hairstyles, smiling back from grainy yearbook photos, images taken before they knew anything about how school buses are built, or what debridement and skin grafts are.
I’ve learned, however, that they are so much more.