Harold Dennis and other survivors of this country's worst drunken-driving accident will gather in an Elizabethtown theater on May 14, the 25th anniversary of the Carroll County bus crash, to face again the 2,500-degree inferno that engulfed their bus.
They'll be watching the new documentary film Impact: After the Crash, which re-enacts the wreck that killed 27 of their friends and family on May 14, 1988. They hope the 80-minute film will honor the victims and remind everyone never to drink and drive.
The film, directed by Eastern Kentucky University alumnus Jason Epperson of Clark County, notes that 25 years later, 27 people are killed each day in America as a result of drunken driving.
Dennis has been working with Epperson on the documentary that depicts the fire-ravaged Radcliff Assembly of God bus he was riding on with 66 others 25 years ago.
Never miss a local story.
At 10:55 that night, a Toyota pickup driven by a drunken factory worker named Larry Mahoney struck the bus and ruptured its unprotected 60-gallon gasoline tank.
Mahoney, then 34, had spent the day drinking. That night he was traveling north in the southbound lane of Interstate 71 in Carroll County. The church bus was returning home after a fun-filled day at Kings Island amusement park near Cincinnati.
Twenty-four youngsters and three adults on the bus were killed. A dozen other passengers, including Dennis, suffered disfiguring burns.
Besides altering many lives, the tragedy led to many laws and police policies.
Dennis, now a Jessamine County businessman who sells medical devices and gives motivational speeches, will speak at the initial screening of Impact at the historic State Theater in Elizabethtown.
He was 14 the night of the crash, which took the life of his childhood best friend, Anthony Marks, who sat next to him on the bus. Dennis is now 39 with three children of his own whose ages range from 8 to 16.
"I don't have a clue what I will say that night," Dennis said during a recent interview in Lexington with Epperson to talk about the film. "I'd like to believe that I won't be too emotional. I've had three years working on this film and have had time to work more through my grief. But I know it will be tough, can't be anything else."
Epperson, 37, runs the Lexington-based Eppic Films, which he started in 2005. He was one of 50 people chosen in 2007 by famed director Steven Spielberg to compete in a short-lived television show called On the Lot, aimed at discovering talented new film directors.
Impact is Epperson's second documentary film. His first, Envisioning Home, was about public housing issues in St. Louis.
Epperson met Dennis in 2008, when Dennis, who had been a star wide receiver for the University of Kentucky in the mid-1990s, was trying to get a film made about his life.
The two started working in earnest on the documentary film in 2010. Dennis is a co-producer of the film, along with Epperson, former University of Kentucky history professor Daniel Blake Smith and David Geary, owner of Option D Films in Louisville.
The film cost about $100,000 to make, Epperson said. Funds came from a government grant, obtained with assistance from the Kentucky State Police, and private donations.
The film draws heavily on interviews with Dennis, other survivors, family members, the church's pastor, law-enforcement officials and medical personnel.
The re-enactment of the bus crash was shot last November in Clark County. Family members of several who were killed in the crash played their roles in the re-enactment.
One of Epperson's biggest disappointments in making the film was that he could not get an interview with Mahoney, who served 10 years and 11 months at the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange for his conviction,
Mahoney left the prison on Sept. 1, 1999. He still lives in the area and is considered a quiet, model citizen. He has declined media requests for interviews over the years.
"I wish he would talk to someone," Dennis said. "I would like to hear how he's doing 25 years afterwards."
Asked if he hates Mahoney, Dennis paused and said, "Nah. I don't have the time. You are trapped if you hate someone. I really don't think about him. Now if you asked me that question 20 years ago, I probably would have given you a different answer."
Dennis and Epperson eagerly anticipate reaction to their film.
After the initial private screening on May 14, a public screening will be held the next night at the Hardin County Schools Performing Arts Center in Elizabethtown. Tickets for that event are no longer available.
A memorial ceremony, open to the public, is scheduled for 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. May 14 at the North Hardin High School gymnasium in Radcliff. Mothers Against Drunk Driving is joining with the film's makers to remember the lives lost and affected.
Epperson hopes to take the documentary to several film festivals and eventually get it on HBO.
"It probably won't be shown publicly until we can see what kind of distributor we can get for it," he said.
More information about the film can be found at theimpactmovie.com.
Dennis said no one has opposed the making of the documentary, but some family members declined to participate.
The documentary, combined with the anniversary, will bring back raw emotions for people associated with the crash, he said.
"I cried many times while making it," Dennis said. "But I want people to remember those 27 lives. I want to remind young and old, especially the young, what can happen when you drive and drink, and I want people to get inspired by the stories of hope some of the bus crash victims and family members are telling."