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Nearly a quarter-of-a-century after the bus crash on Interstate 71 changed his life forever, survivor Harold Dennis returned to Carrollton last week as part of a project to make a documentary about the tragedy.
Dennis spoke to the Carrollton Rotary Club Wednesday at General Butler State Resort Park, talking some about his personal experiences and also about “Impact,” the movie he is producing with several others to educate people on the dangers of drinking and driving.
Dennis said he had a lot of trepidation about coming back to Carrollton. The last time he was here, he was testifying against Larry Mahoney, the man convicted of drunk driving and killing 27 people in the May 14, 1988 bus crash.
He said he felt “a lot of mixed emotions” as he came back into the town and that many of the feelings are “hard to explain.”
“I am starting a process that needs to be started,” he said. Dennis said this is part of the healing process for him and the communities involved in the tragedy, as well as a way to remember the 27 people who lost their lives in the crash and fire that ensued.
Addressing the Rotary Club and others from the community who came to hear him speak, Dennis said he was talking from his heart.
“Personally, I say thank you to any and all community members that were involved with caring for us that night,” he said. He mentioned the hospital personnel, EMTs, firefighters, nurses and others who did so much for those who were injured in the crash. He also mentioned that a lot of churches worked to provide food and comfort for the survivors who had to return to testify in the Mahoney trial.
“I want to say thank you for what you’ve done,” he said.
Dennis was born in Tennessee, grew up in Radcliff, but said his family had moved to Elizabethtown at the time of the crash.
Dennis was not a member of the Radcliff First Assembly of God. His friend Andy had invited him to attend a service where he learned of the trip to King’s Island.
Initially, Dennis said his mother didn’t want him to go, citing the cost of the trip. But he said that he and his sister persisted in trying to convince her, and they finally won permission to go.
The trip to King’s Island in Cincinnati was a good one that he enjoyed with his friends. “I really try to hold on to good memories of that day,” Dennis said. “No one could foresee what was going to happen.”
On the trip home, he said he was sitting next to his friend Andy and had fallen asleep. He recalls being awakened by the bus hitting something, which he thought was probably a deer.
From there, everything happened quickly as the fire broke out and chaos followed.
Dennis said he was seated in the fifth row and fought his way to the back of the bus, over and around his friends. He said he can’t explain how, but he managed to make his way back there and was pulled from the bus by a stranger who had stopped to help.
“Somebody was looking over me,” he said. But then he said he doesn’t want to imply that no one was “watching over” those who perished in the tragedy.
Dennis had burns over 30 percent of his body, including third-degree burns to his face. He was not taken to a local hospital, but was flown directly from the crash site to Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville. He spent the next two months going through recovery and “trying to piece together what happened and why.”
At the young age of 14, he said he had to deal with the disfigurement left by the burns and a long recovery. Dennis said he also dealt with a lot of survivor guilt because his friend Andy died in the crash and fire. He repeatedly asked himself why he wasn’t able to pull Andy out along with him.
But Dennis said he knew he had to get on with his
Sports was the outlet he used to help in his recovery and healing process. He said it was really a lot of hard work. It paid off for him as he was All-State in high school soccer and track.
He went on to play soccer at University of Louisville. But then he decided to transfer to University of Kentucky where he played football for three years in the early 90s.
“It weighed heavily on my heart to continue to be the voice of the 27 people who were my friends,” Dennis said.
The horrors of that night have been part of the journey that he said has taken him in different directions in the past and brought him to Carrollton last Wednesday as he works on “Impact.”
Working with David Gay, Jason Eperson and University of Kentucky history professor Daniel Smith, he said the documentary will have several goals.
The first is to increase youth awareness to the dangers of driving drunk, he said.
Dennis’ stepdaughter Jasmine Barrick wanted to come with him Wednesday to be part of his journey.
Barrick told the crowd that many young people take many things as a joke. She said they party, get drunk and “think it’s cool.”
It takes something such as this movie to provide them with the “wow factor” to get their attention, Barrick said. By showing this documentary in the schools, she said she believes more young people will take this seriously.
Dennis said copies of the movie will be sent to every school in Kentucky as part of a grant that he received from the Kentucky State Police through a federal funding source.
Other goals he has for “Impact” include serving as a memorial and to commemorate those who died in the crash.
It can offer hope and inspiration to learn how these victims and their families put their lives back together after the tragedy, he said.
Dennis also believes the movie can bridge the gap between those involved and show the forgiveness that has developed since that tragic night in May 1988.
This includes the feelings that remain with many in Carrollton.
He spoke of comments that he has read where some residents say the bus crash has left a “black cloud” over this community, while others just want the story to fade away.
Dennis said this will not happen unless the community deals with the difficult issues involved. Remembering this tragedy and those involved is no different than remembering 9-11 and other national tragedies, he said. “It’s not going anywhere. We have to do this to heal.”
To accomplish this, Dennis said he wants Carrollton voices to be heard in the documentary. To date, he and the other directors have completed 22 interviews.
“We don’t have the Carrollton side yet,” he said. Dennis said he wants people to hear what local residents have to say.
This includes Larry Mahoney.
Dennis said maybe he wouldn’t be “demonized” any longer if he would come out and speak as part of the documentary.
“As intimidating as it would probably be, I would like to talk to him,” he said.
Dennis said he has talked to people who are close to Mahoney and they tell him he is a good man. As a 38-year-old now, he knows that people make mistakes. “It could have been any of us,” he said.
“I don’t demonize him,” Dennis said. “It was a mistake.”
As part of healing, he said, he and many others have forgiven him. “We are forgiving people,” he said.
This can send a powerful message as part of the movie “Impact.”
Dennis said they have raised about $70,000 toward the project, including the $40,000 KSP grant for the drunk driving awareness project. He said they need another $30,000 to be able to complete the documentary.
Dennis wants to have this complete by the 25th anniversary of the crash next year.
For more information or to see trailers of the documentary, visit www.theimpactmovie.com.