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Bus crash documentary jogs survivors' memories

Jason Epperson shot a scene inside the bus while working on The Impact, After the Crash, a documentary to re-enacts the Carrollton bus crash that resulted in 27 deaths in May of 1988. The film was shot in Winchester.
Jason Epperson shot a scene inside the bus while working on The Impact, After the Crash, a documentary to re-enacts the Carrollton bus crash that resulted in 27 deaths in May of 1988. The film was shot in Winchester. AP

WINCHESTER — Growing up, 17-year-old Autumn Howell was never allowed to ride a bus — not to school, not on field trips and not to ball games. Her mother told her she had been in a bus crash herself as a child, but beyond that, Autumn said details were limited.

Autumn and her mother, Amy Constant Howell, were standing on the side of the Veterans Memorial Parkway in Winchester on Nov. 10, watching as a film crew assembled camera equipment and discussed logistics.

A few minutes later, a bus drove down the parkway, with Autumn inside. The bus, the same model Amy Howell was riding on when she was in a crash in 1988, was full of teenagers, many like Autumn, with connections to that crash almost 25 years ago.

"This generation, they don't really know anything about it because it happened so long ago," Amy Howell said.

On May 14, 1988, a church youth group was traveling on Interstate 71 near Carrollton, headed back from a trip to King's Island, when the bus collided head-on with a truck driven by Larry Mahoney. At the time of the crash, Mahoney had been drinking for several hours. The crash killed 27 people, making it one of the worst bus accidents in U.S. history.

Local director Jason Epperson and a team of volunteers meticulously recreated the scene for a documentary he hopes to premier this spring in time for the 25th anniversary of the crash. The Impact will feature dozens of interviews with survivors, first responders who worked at the crash and the family members of victims. An agreement with the state board of education will allow the film to be shown to middle and high school students throughout Kentucky to raise awareness about the dangers of drinking and driving.

The film is the result of a friendship between Epperson and crash survivor Harold Dennis. The two have known one another for about six years, Dennis said, and having him direct the documentary was "a natural progression."

"It's special," Dennis said. "I've been working on this going on two years now, and to see it come to fruition is great. It has not been an easy process in a multitude of ways."

Filming began Nov. 10 at Calvary Christian Church, with kids boarding the bus and waving good-bye to parents. That afternoon, the crew began recreating the crash scene at Veterans Memorial Parkway. Epperson chose Winchester for filming because of his familiarity with the area, and because he thought filming would be easier on a road like the Parkway, which resembles an interstate but has much less traffic.

When the bus pulled out and headed down the road, it was a "surreal" experience for the man behind the wheel, Robbie Pearman.

Pearman was 11 when the bus left Hardin County in 1988, with his father, John Pearman, behind the wheel. The elder Pearman was an associate pastor at First Assembly of God in Radcliff, as well as the Hardin County Clerk.

He also became one of the 27 fatalities that day.

"To some degree, it defines who you are," Pearman said. "I mean, small town, probably similar to Winchester, and you never expect something like this to happen."

His participation in the film began when he was contacted by Dennis. He decided to portray his father in the re-enactment because he felt it would be a good way to honor his memory.

Robbie Pearman is now 36 years old, the same age his father was the day of the crash. He was not on the bus that day, though he had made several other trips with the youth group.

"Being on the bus, even though it is still a re-enactment, you still get some of the emotion of the day," Pearman said.

Even after more than two decades, Pearman said there are a lot of details about the crash and the events following it he doesn't know. There are a lot of details he doesn't want to know.

His older sister, Christy, 13 at the time, was extensively burned. Although they have talked about the crash, Pearman said he doesn't ask a lot of questions.

The crash occurred close to 11 p.m. Saturday evening, but Pearman said he didn't find out his father had died until late the next afternoon. His mother had gone straight to the hospital after the crash, to be with Christy, and find out more information.

"I don't think they knew how bad it was at the time," Pearman said.

The "what ifs" get to him at times, but overall, Pearman said he has made peace with the events of that day, and with drunk driver Larry Mahoney.

"I wouldn't say I'm angry at the guy. I got past that a long time ago. You have to forgive. The process of forgiveness is just as much about the person who's forgiving as the person who did the hurtful thing," Pearman said.

He still thinks about his dad every day, the man Pearman said was his "No. 1 fan."

For many survivors, the crash is still something they think about on a daily basis. Dennis said his thoughts usually turn to his friend, Anthony Marks. Dennis and Marks, both 15 at the time of the crash, were sitting next to each other on the bus. Marks did not survive the crash.

"There's some thought every day. It typically surrounds not the day per se, but my friend," Dennis said. "You can't make sense of it. You have a lot of survivor guilt."

The two also were accompanied by friend Quinton Higgins. Today, Higgins still lives in Radcliff, where he drives a bus and teaches bus safety. Several of the film's extras are students who have helped him create bus-safety videos in the past.

"I had no plans on being involved, but I'm glad (I am)," Higgins said. "Our story needs to be told."

The production team originally reached out to Higgins for help in finding a bus like the one involved in the crash. The job was surprisingly easy for Higgins, who stumbled across a bus parked on the street in his own neighborhood.

Being so closely involved with buses has forced Higgins to think about the crash more often in recent years, after "putting it deep inside" for most of his youth.

"I have moments where I have to gather myself. I never know what's going to happen," Higgins said.

He still won't drive a bus at night, and enlisted a friend to drive the bus back to Hardin County after filming was through.

"After the accident, I lived kind of recklessly," Higgins said. "It was kind of overshadowed. My dad was an alcoholic also.

The crash left his hands and arms badly burned, and the scars are still visible today.

"On impact, we all were fine. We got up and walked around," Higgins said.

Then, everyone realized the bus was on fire, and panic set in.

"I stood up in the aisle, and realized I couldn't get out," Higgins said.

The fire blocked the front door, and the smoke and darkness made it almost impossible to find the rear exit.

At one point, Higgins passed out. He was pulled off the bus by a truck driver who happened to be on the interstate at the time.

"I remember looking up at the sky and seeing an orange glow," he said.

Because his burns required hospitalization, Higgins said it was more than a week after the crash before he realized Anthony had not made it.

In 1993, after the birth of his oldest daughter, Higgins said he started a family tradition — a yearly trip to King's Island. After the crash, he had no interest in going back to the theme park, but he has used the trips to tell his older children about the crash.

His youngest daughter, 5, is starting to ask questions about the burns on his hands.

"You don't plan on thinking about it, but it just pops up. Not a whole lot of us speak about it, honestly. Doing this right here ("The Impact") is what's got everybody talking," Higgins said.

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