RADCLIFF, Ky. — 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, Ky., 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, Ky., 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."
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, Ky., 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 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.
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, Ky. "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."
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.
Jason Booher, 43, a basketball coach and school principal in Pikeville, Ky., 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.
"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:
'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 many 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."
'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% of her body, Madden would spend the next six weeks in the burn unit at University of Louisville Hospital along with several other survivors.
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."
'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."
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."
Follow Deborah Yetter on Twitter: @d_yetter