Part ONE

'It was my skin'

On a sunny afternoon in early May, Ciaran Madden sits on a granite bench in a Hardin County cemetery contemplating two glossy black monuments.

One bears the names of those who died in the crash. The other is a monument with her own name on it, then Ciaran Foran, her maiden name, listed as one of 40 survivors.

"There was a big old fireball," said Madden, recalling what happened immediately after the pickup hit the bus, jolting her and many of the sleeping passengers awake. 

Rising to try to escape, Madden said, she was knocked down. The next thing she knew, she was outside on the ground wondering why people were "hitting on me." They were trying to put out the flames. Raising her arm, Madden saw that it was dripping.

"It looked like blood," she said. "It was my skin."

Placed in an ambulance, Madden caught sight of her face in a reflective metal cabinet, grotesquely burned and unrecognizable. When she exhaled, she breathed out dark smoke.

"I could see black, and I knew I was in trouble," Madden said.

With third-degree burns over 67 percent of her body, Madden would spend the next six weeks in the burn unit at University of Louisville Hospital along with several other survivors.

Ciaran Foran Madden contemplates a monument that bears her name as one of 40 survivors of the Carrollton church bus crash in 1988 in which 27 children and adults died. 

Her father bought her headphones to try to drown out the sounds of fellow patients undergoing excruciatingly painful treatment for burns known as "debridement" to remove dead or damaged tissue.

Even with headphones, "you could still hear the screams," she said.

Madden endured years of skin grafts and surgeries and said she's had conflicted feelings about the ordeal. For a time, she thought she'd reached some level of peace.

But more recently, "I'm back to being mad," she said.

"I'm mad because there are people who won't even go out their doors," she said. "They home-school their kids because they're afraid of the school bus. There are survivors that are still trapped in that day and there's nothing we can do about it. But Larry Mahoney's out living his life, walking down the street as a free man."

Madden's grateful for changes that came about after the crash, including improvements to bus safety. School buses now use the less combustible diesel fuel instead of gasoline and have more escape features, including pop-out windows, roof hatches and side exits.

But she's frustrated that drunken driving crashes still occur regularly, despite tougher laws.

"I'm very happy that we have safer buses," she said. "But if there wasn't a drunken driver on the road, that bus would not have exploded at all."

'I'm not driving a bus!'

Eight years ago, Quinton Higgins Jr. was looking for work after he was laid off from a civilian job at Fort Knox.

A friend told him the Hardin County School Public school system was hiring bus drivers. Higgins said his reaction was emphatic, even though he thought he had put memories of the crash behind him.

"I said, 'I'm not driving a bus!' " Higgins recalled.

But he got the job and liked it. Then events took a stranger turn when another friend told him about a used church bus listed on Craigslist. Though a later model, it was identical to the 1977 Ford bus destroyed in the crash — except for one feature.

It has a protective steel cage around the gas tank at the right front side of the bus, a safety feature Ford began installing in 1977 just eight days after the Radcliff church bus was built.

His friend told him, "Quinton, you need this bus," he said.

So he bought it, not sure what to do with it.

Over time, he began turning it into a memorial.

Along with photos of those who died placed on the seats, a photo of the charred hulk of the burned church bus is taped to the steering wheel. Around the interior are other photos and newspaper stories about the crash.

The seat where Higgins was sitting bears photos of him in bandages at the hospital where he spent six weeks recovering from smoke inhalation and burns. He was seated right behind the friend who invited him on the trip, Anthony Marks, who died.

Higgins learned of Anthony's death from the television news at the hospital even though families tried to shield survivors from news immediately after the crash.

"All the names started scrolling across the screen, and I lost it," he recalled.

Higgins doesn't use the bus for passengers but drives it to engagements where he speaks to school groups and others about drunken driving and how one wrong choice can destroy so many lives.

"I tell them our story, I tell them why I'm passionate about this stuff," Higgins said.

He invites students to get on the bus and look around, which he said is sobering for kids, leaving some in tears, especially when they see photos of those who died.

"It makes such an impact when you see these kids' faces," Higgins said. "These were real people."

'One of the lucky ones'

A coach, teacher and now an assistant principal and athletic director at Pikeville Independent Schools, Jason Booher said the crash has shaped his career, giving him a platform to speak publicly, primarily to young audiences.

"I've never tasted alcohol or experimented with a drug in my life, and I've had as much fun in life as anybody," said Booher, 43. "I tell them you don’t have to do that stuff because you can have fun without it. I'm a living witness."

Booher was 13 at the time of the crash and managed to escape with minor injuries by climbing over the seats rather than trying to fight his way through the crowded aisle. Once he got out, he joined others trying to pull people from the pile of bodies at the back door of the bus.

"I was one of the lucky ones," he said. "I got out pretty quick."

But his best friend, Chad Witt, who'd invited him on the trip, didn't survive."The next four years of high school, I couldn’t see anything positive coming out of it," Booher said of the experience. "Losing my best friend and 26 others, it was hard to deal with it."

But as he grew older, Booher saw it as an opportunity to speak to young people about personal choices and overcoming adversity.

"The bus crash has molded me into what I am today," he said. "It’s been really a blessing to share my story with kids."

A memorial to the victims of the Carrollton bus crash is in Radcliff, Ky. The crash resulted in the deaths of 27 people. Apr. 26, 2018

'Knives sticking me'

Harold Dennis, one of the most severely injured survivors, recalls being pulled from the bus and placed on the ground. He'd suffered third-degree burns on his back and shoulders.

"One of the things I do vividly remember is the blades of grass in the median felt like knives sticking me in the back," Dennis said.

He also suffered severe, disfiguring burns on his face and neck, spending three months in the hospital. Dennis underwent multiple skin grafts and surgeries.

"I developed a new respect for burn victims," he said. "The treatment is grueling. I was 14."

At first, Dennis didn't know how severely burned his face was and his family prevented him from looking in a mirror. But when his mother briefly left his hospital room, he got hold of a mirror and began screaming at the sight."I didn't recognize myself," he said, describing his ordeal in the documentary.

A high school athlete, Dennis was able to return to sports, eventually playing soccer at the University of Louisville and and then football at the University of Kentucky as a transfer student.

Along with his sports accomplishments, Dennis became a symbol of overcoming terrible injuries. He became a popular motivational speaker and was profiled by CBS, ESPN, People Magazine and Sports Illustrated.

Dennis continued speaking engagements after college, but in recent years he became interested in doing a documentary about the crash.

While his story had been told on national television and in sports stories, that wasn't enough.

"I wanted to tell everybody's story, " Dennis said, to "memorialize our friends and victims, tell everyone’s stories, as many stories as we can."

Dennis found a producer and writer. He lined up the money. They used some survivors' children to play their parents and used the church bus Higgins bought for the re-enactment.

The result was an 80-minute documentary, "Impact After the Crash," that relates the crash through interviews with survivors and investigators and news footage from events, including Mahoney's trial.

The film is available on Amazon. Some survivors show the documentary when they speak at public events.

"It's a phenomenal, phenomenal film," Dennis said.

Dennis' one regret is that he was not able to persuade Mahoney to participate in the documentary.

"Who better to tell a story like this than Larry Mahoney?" he asked.

Dennis said he delivered a letter to Mahoney through a relative, requesting his help with the documentary. Afterward, the relative described Mahoney's reaction.

"He said, 'I gave your letter to Larry and Larry opened it and read it and he folded it up and he gave it right back to me,'" Dennis said. "Short story, Larry refused to speak, refused to be interviewed."

On the 30th anniversary of the crash, Dennis said he wants people to think about everyone it affected.

"I just hope that people will continue to remember, not necessarily in the way of a huge memorial service," Dennis said. "But when that time frame rolls around on May 14, I just hope people remember it silently or quietly and say a few words for us and the people no longer with us."

Finding Larry Mahoney

Still frustrated that Mahoney had cut off contact with her, Ciaran Madden said she made one more attempt to reach him last year at his home in Owen County.

The occasion was a talk Higgins was giving at a nearby school, taking his bus. Madden drove up separately with a friend, Tammy Darnell, also a crash survivor. Afterward, they figured out where Mahoney lived and decided to stop at his house.

"I knocked on the front door and he came around the corner," Madden said. "He's like, 'What are you doing here?' "

Darnell, who waited in the car, got out after Mahoney appeared.

"I got out and met him," Darnell said. "He was terribly sorry for what he did, he could not apologize more."

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

Madden told Mahoney she wanted to know why he'd cut off contact after his prison release.

"He had tears in his eyes and said, 'I think you know,' '' Madden said.

He didn't elaborate, and the two women left. Madden sensed Mahoney meant that contact with survivors was too painful.

"I got it," Madden said. "But it still pisses me off sometimes."

Source: Courier Journal


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