Carrollton bus crash survivor Quinton Higgins converts a replica bus into a mobile memorial to honor those who perished in the tragedy. 

Quinton Higgins, 45, was 15-years-old when he and other passengers were the victims of a bus crash in Carrollton, Ky. which resulted in the deaths of 27 people. He has purchased a replica of the bus they were riding in and turned it into a mobile memorial. He has placed photos of the victims in the seats they occupied during the crash. He is now a school bus driver as well.

One moment he's at the pump, fueling the Hardin County school bus he drives for a living.

The next, he's trapped in a burning church bus erupting in flames. Clothes on fire, kids screaming for help as melting paint from the ceiling drips on bare skin and lungs fill with black, toxic smoke from blazing seat cushions.

Such flashbacks come without warning for Quinton Higgins Jr., one of 40 survivors of the May 14, 1988, crash in Carrollton, Kentucky, that left 27 dead and many more injured, some grievously, when a drunken driver hit their bus as they headed home after a day at an amusement park.

"Even though I'm an adult, I'm trapped at 15," said Higgins, 45, of Radcliff, who suffered burns and lung damage from the crash. "It took many years trying to heal from this. I'm still trying to heal."

Now, on the 30th anniversary of what remains the nation's deadliest drunken driving crash, Higgins and other survivors say they finally are reclaiming their lives from the catastrophe that defined them for so many years.

"It's our year, to stand up and be survivors, to let us grieve and let us talk about where we are," said Ciaran Madden, 44, of Radcliff, whose face, neck and right arm remain scarred from third-degree burns suffered at age 14. "There's a lot of people that say get over it. This is something that you don't get over. This is the year I'm finding out, yeah, you really don't get over it."

Related: How the horror of the Carrollton bus crash made highways safer

Three decades later, survivors continue to work through conflicting feelings and agonizing memories of the nighttime crash after a pickup traveling the wrong way on Interstate 71 in Carroll County hit the bus owned by Radcliff First Assembly of God. The collision punctured the bus fuel tank, turning 60 gallons of gasoline into a giant fireball that swept through the bus.

"It got so hot in there," said Joe Percefull, 44, an administrator with Oldham County public schools. "You literally felt like you were burning from the inside because you were just breathing in all that hot air."

Temperatures inside the bus quickly reached 1,500 degrees, investigators said. 

With the front exit blocked by the crash, panicked youths fled through smoke and flames toward the only other exit at the rear. Charred remains of those who didn't escape were found piled in the aisle and draped over seats.

"The pain that I have from that event never goes away," said Percefull, who suffered from burns and smoke inhalation. "I still remember every single thing that happened to me."

In recent years, many survivors have reconnected through social media, including a private Facebook page.

Some say they are increasingly willing to speak out in hopes people never forget the devastating impact of the crash on themselves, their friends, their families, the community.

"May 14 should never be forgotten," Madden said. "It should be remembered every single year."

The teens who survived now are in their 40s, with careers, spouses and children of their own. Yet they remain haunted by memories of the crash that horrified a nation and led to major reforms in school bus safety as well as tougher drunken driving laws in many states, including Kentucky.

They wonder why they survived and their friends died.

"I lost my best friend in the accident, Joshua Conyers," Percefull said. "He was sitting right beside me when the accident happened. How did I manage to get out when he didn’t?"

They also remain troubled by the yearslong silence of Larry Mahoney, the Owen County man who served 10 years in prison after he was convicted of manslaughter for killing 27 people by crashing into the church bus while drunk.

Mahoney has never spoken publicly since his conviction in 1989 and did not respond to a request for comment for this story. He was released from prison in 1999.

"It appears that he just doesn’t care, but I don’t believe that’s how he feels," said Darrin Jaquess, 46, a Radcliff real estate agent who nearly died of lung damage from the crash. "I feel like he probably feels it's best just to stay out of the limelight. I would love to just sit down and talk with him."

Madden said she visited Mahoney in prison for several years after he responded to a letter she wrote in hopes of better understanding the man who caused so much suffering.

"It wasn't in me to hate him as much as I wanted to hate him," she said.

Madden said Mahoney, in their conversations, was remorseful and emotional but said he remembered nothing about the crash.

Harold Dennis was badly burned at age 14 in the 1988 bus crash. 

After he left prison, Mahoney stopped responding to her calls and letters, Madden said.

Survivors often wonder what their lives would have been like had the crash never occurred. Still, some say that despite its horrors, over time they have begun to appreciate its benefits.

"Am I a better person today having survived or endured this?" asked Harold Dennis, 44, who survived near-fatal smoke inhalation and burns that left him badly scarred. "Yes, I think so. I would have to say yes."

Still, "nobody would choose that," said Dennis, a physician's assistant in Lexington. "I would bring the 27 fatalities back tomorrow if I could."

Survivors have sought solace in various ways.

Madden speaks to students about bullying, driven by her own experience after she returned to middle school disfigured by burns and was mocked as "Freddy Krueger" and "Crispy Critter."

Reporters Tom Loftus, Deborah Yetter and photographer Pat McDonogh remember how Courier Journal coverage led to changes in bus safety, and how the tragic event affected them personally.

Dennis helped produce a 2013 documentary called "Impact After the Crash" in which he and other survivors recount their experiences. Some of their children appear in the documentary, playing their parents in a re-enactment of the day that began with excited kids piling onto a bus for the outing at the Kings Island amusement park in Ohio.

Related: Drunk driver silent about Carrollton bus crash despite survivors' pleas


Jason Booher, 43, a basketball coach and school principal in Pikeville, speaks routinely to school groups and others about drinking, drugs and his experience surviving the crash.

But Higgins has devised the most unique tribute: an old Ford school bus nearly identical to the one destroyed in the crash that he has turned into a mobile memorial. 

On the outside is painted "27 reasons not to drink and drive: May 14, 1988." Inside are photos of those who died, taped to the seats they were in at the time of the crash.

Higgins drives the bus to speaking engagements where he talks about the dangers of drinking and driving, mostly to middle and high school students. The rest of the time it stays parked in Radcliff near a highway where passers-by can see it.

Another good read: Child's death led family in a crusade for 15-passenger van safety


"All the survivors say there's crazy and then there's Quinton," he joked about the vehicle he bought as a used church bus. "Everyone thinks it's crazy, but they all support me."

Here are stories of some of the survivors:

Jason Booher delivers a speech in front of a photo of the Carrollton bus crash that killed 27. A survivor of the fiery crash, Booher now works as an educator and motivational speaker, warning youths about drugs and alcohol.

'I hate Mother's Day'

The anniversary of the crash falls around Mother's Day, a bitter reminder for those whose loved ones were among the 24 children and three adults who died one week after Mother's Day in 1988.

Karolyn Nunnallee, whose daughter Patty, 10, was the youngest to die, said Mother's Day is painful for her and other families affected by the crash.

"I hate Mother’s Day," said Nunnallee, 67.

A military wife whose husband, an Air Force officer, was assigned to the nearby Fort Knox Army post, Nunnallee said their lives were serene before the crash.

"My life was basically as smooth as silk," she said.

Afterward, devastated by the loss, Nunnallee found herself searching for some way to make a difference.

Two weeks after her daughter's death, Nunnallee visited the president of the Hardin County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who gave her a box full of MADD applications.

"I left that office thinking I, Karolyn Nunnallee, am going to stop drunk driving in this country," she said, a belief she later realized was "naive."

"But it kind of gave me back a little sense of control," she said.

Nunnallee, who now lives in Florida, went on to become an impassioned spokeswoman for MADD, telling her story to countless audiences across the country and becoming MADD's national president in 1998 and 1999.

Over the years, Nunnallee said she's been gratified to see drunken driving laws toughened in Kentucky and other states.

But Nunnallee said the fight's not over and she remains involved in the battle against drunken driving and, more recently, impaired driving through cell phone use or texting.

"It’s still killing people," she said. "It's got to stop and we can prevent it. It’s 100 percent preventable."

Part Two

Source: Courier Journal


Last updated on: 2018-06-15 | Link to this post