RADCLIFF, Ky. (AP) — A quarter century after the nation's deadliest alcohol-related highway crash, the Kentucky town that still grieves for the 27 "beautiful souls" who perished on a church bus in the fiery tragedy gathered Tuesday evening to remember the victims and honor the resilience of the survivors.
The names of the 27 victims and the 40 passengers who escaped the burning bus were read aloud to a hushed crowd at an hour-long memorial service in a high school gymnasium in Radcliff, where their ill-fated outing to an Ohio amusement park began on May 14, 1988.
"Tragedy broke our hearts but not our spirits," Martha Tennison said.
At the time of the crash, she and her husband were co-pastors of the Radcliff church, First Assembly of God, that owned the bus. Her comments drew "amens" from the crowd, which filled one side of the bleachers in the gym.
The church bus was on its way home when it was hit by a pickup driven by Larry Mahoney, a chemical plant worker who was driving in the wrong direction. His blood alcohol level was 0.24, more than twice what was then the legal definition of drunken driving when the catastrophe occurred on a rural stretch of Interstate 71 near Carrollton in northern Kentucky.
The memorial came on the same day that federal accident investigators in Washington recommended that states cut their threshold for drunken driving.
The National Transportation Safety Board said states should shrink the standard from the current .08 blood alcohol content to .05 as part of a series of recommendations aimed at reducing alcohol-related highway deaths.
NTSB spokesman Peter Knudsen said the agency was "well aware" of the Kentucky bus crash anniversary and officials "wanted to get our report before the board prior to that date." NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman opened the meeting Tuesday in Washington by noting the devastation caused by the crash.
At the memorial, Karolyn Nunnallee said that for those who lost loved ones and friends in the crash, the "void still remains."
Nunnallee's 10-year-old daughter Patty was the youngest of those killed in the crash.
Nunnallee turned her grief into activism as a national leader in the fight against drunken driving. She said that despite the tougher DUI laws that followed the Kentucky crash, nearly 10,000 people die on U.S. roads each year due to drunken driving, which she called a "100 percent preventable crime."
"It is really inconceivable to me that this continues to happen," said Nunnallee, a former national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
A tearful Carey Aurentz Cummins said she survived the "unimaginable tragedy and every day I've lived with the joy and the guilt associated with that fact."
Like many other survivors, she married, had a child and built a career.
"On the other hand, I know that 27 beautiful souls didn't make it off the bus that night," she said. "For the family members and friends who lost loved ones, please know that I am deeply sorry for everything. They were our fathers, our mothers, our sisters, our brothers, our friends, and we miss them every day."
Along with remembering the victims, the service was a chance to celebrate the lives of those who survived, she said.
At her urging, about two dozen survivors in the audience stood, receiving a long ovation from the crowd.
The survivors, who were mostly teenagers when the crash occurred, have gone on to become teachers, coaches, salesmen, nurses and even a bus driver, she said. They are rearing a new generation, with more than 40 children among them, she said.
But she said that "all of us have struggled along the way."
Cummins spent two months in a hospital burn unit after the crash, undergoing multiple skin grafts. She lost part of her right leg. But the memory of the tragedy, and her lost friends, motivated her, she said.
"I figured, if I could make it off the bus that night, then I could survive anything," she said.
The memorial was part of two days of events to mark the 25th anniversary of the catastrophe that spurred campaigns to toughen drunken-driving laws and improve bus safety. On Wednesday night, a public screening is set in nearby Elizabethtown for a new documentary recounting the tragedy. Survivors were given a private screening of the film Tuesday night.
Mahoney, the man who caused the crash, survived with broken ribs, cuts and bruises. The state charged him with murder but a jury convicted him of assault, manslaughter and wanton endangerment. He was given a 16-year sentence but spent less than 10 years in prison — the rest was deducted for good behavior.
Mahoney, who was released from prison in 1999, has shied away from talking to the media. In an interview in late 1991, he said he was haunted by what he did, though he had no memory of it.
He was not mentioned by name at the memorial Tuesday night, but he was not forgotten.
"We're here today because one man made a bad choice," Tennison said.
Associated Press Writers Joan Lowy in Washington and Brett Barrouquere in Louisville, Ky., contributed to this report.