May 7, 2013 5:06 PM
(AP) - Survivors of the nation's worst drunken driving crash plan to reunite next week for a memorial service in the central Kentucky area that suffered the heartbreak from the tragedy a quarter century ago.
The reunion also will serve as the backdrop for a screening of a new documentary showcasing the perils of drinking and driving and the resilience of those who lived through the fiery crash.
The public memorial next Tuesday evening at the North Hardin High School gymnasium at Radcliff will coincide with the 25th anniversary of the May 14, 1988, crash that killed 27 people and injured 34 others.
The next evening will feature a sold-out public screening of the film, "Impact: After the Crash," at the Hardin County Schools Performing Arts Center in Elizabethtown. Kentucky first lady Jane Beshear is scheduled to attend the screening, which will include a question-and-answer session with the filmmaker.
Karolyn Nunnallee, whose 10-year-old daughter Patty died in the crash, said she looks forward to catching up with the survivors - many of whom are now about the same age she was at the time of the crash.
"We've kind of been thrown together," Nunnallee, a former national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said in a phone interview Tuesday. "I feel like we're almost like family."
The crash occurred near the northern Kentucky town of Carrollton as a church bus was carrying her daughter and 66 other people, mostly children from a Radcliff youth group, back from an outing at the King's Island amusement park in Ohio. The bus was struck head-on by a drunk driver traveling on the wrong side of Interstate 71.
Cassie Edinger, a victim-services specialist with Kentucky Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said some survivors have expressed mixed feelings about the documentary.
They applaud efforts to publicize the dangers of drunken driving, she said, but are bracing for the anniversary of "something that was extremely traumatic for them."
Besides photos and TV clips, the 80-minute documentary also includes a re-enactment of the crash.
Harold Dennis, a crash survivor who was part of the team that created the film, acknowledged that the re-enactment might make some of his fellow survivors uneasy.
But it's part of an overarching message meant to discourage drunken driving, he said.
"It's really a lesson of decision making," said Dennis, a co-producer of the film. "Your choices in life can be fateful. One's man choice changed a lot of lives."
Larry Mahoney, the driver of the pickup truck that struck the bus, was sentenced to 16 years in prison. He was released after serving 9 1/2 years.
Dennis said the documentary, which features comments from a number of crash survivors, offers lessons on how to recover from tragedy. Dennis overcame his injuries and played football at the University of Kentucky.
There's his friend who now drives a school bus, despite having suffered severe burns in the crash. There's the couple who survived the crash together and now are married and raising their own children.
"All those families up in Newtown, Conn., they kissed their children goodbye to go to school and they never see their 6-year-old, their 7-year-old, their 8-year-old again," he said. "How do you deal with that? We have examples of that from people in this film who have dealt with that for a quarter of a century."
Quinton Higgins, the crash survivor who now drives a school bus in Hardin County, said he looked forward to spending time with others who lived through the tragedy.
Many have left the area, and those horrific events from 25 years ago generally don't come up when he sees those who still live nearby.
"I don't think a day goes by where I don't have some aspect of it in my mind," said Higgins, now 40. "For the most part it doesn't bother me. Then I do have those moments where you have all your memories come back and hit you at one time."
When that happens, he said, he takes a "time out." He said he's not bothered by the re-enactment of the crash, which claimed his best friend's life.
"A lot of people don't remember the accident or don't know," Higgins said. "Drinking and driving is a major thing, and sometimes you have to show strong details to get people to listen."
Others interviewed for the film included parents of children in the crash, emergency workers, a detective and a nurse who worked at a hospital where many of the survivors were treated.
"It's important to tell the story again," said filmmaker Jason Epperson, a Kentuckian who directed and co-produced the documentary. "It's been 25 years since the accident. There's never been a documentary or film about the crash. This is really a way to honor the victims of the crash, and I think it's an opportunity to educate."
The film's producers hope the documentary will be circulated among schools to warn of the dangers of drunken drivers. They also hope to have it shown at film festivals with a goal of gaining national distribution.
Among those featured in the documentary is Rob Pearman, who in the re-enactment portrays his father John Pearman, who died in the crash while driving the bus.
Rob Pearman, who was 11 at the time of the crash, was 36 when he portrayed his father, the same age as his father at the time of his death.
He said he did the role to honor his father's memory. But he said portraying his father on his last day of life put him through a range of emotions, including the "what-ifs" of 25 years of life had his father lived.
"Part of me was sad and there's a part of me that was just hoping I had made my father proud of what I had done that day," he said.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
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