RADCLIFF, Ky. (AP) — For 25 years they've built their lives after surviving the nation's deadliest alcohol-related highway crash, which killed 27 people when a drunken driver slammed his pickup truck into a bus carrying a church group.
Many of the survivors returned Tuesday for a public memorial service in the Kentucky town where their ill-fated outing to an Ohio amusement park began.
"After 25 years, it's amazing sometimes how fresh your wounds still are," said Christy Cox, who suffered severe burns in the May 14, 1988, crash along a rural stretch of Interstate 71 near Carrollton, Ky., situated between Louisville and Cincinnati.
Cox's father, John Pearman, drove the bus and was among those who died. Her childhood sweetheart who sat next to her on the bus, Wayne Cox, was treated for smoke inhalation that night. They are now married with four children.
The memorial was part of two days of events to mark the 25th anniversary of the fiery catastrophe that spurred campaigns to toughen drunken-driving laws and improve bus safety. On Wednesday night, a public screening is set for a documentary recounting the tragedy. Survivors were being given a private screening on Tuesday.
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.
It killed 24 children and three adults heading home from an outing to Kings Island amusement park. The bus 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.
Mahoney 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.
Forty people, mostly youngsters, managed to escape the flames through windows or the rear exit as the bus turned into a fireball.
Quinton Higgins, who was 15 at the time of the crash, said the tragedy robbed him of his carefree teenage years. He suffered severe burns and lung damage and lost his best friend, who died in the crash.
"After the crash, we didn't really function as teenagers," he said. "It was a crazy moment. I think all of us have handled this pretty good."
At least 20 survivors were in town for the anniversary, he said, and many met for a private dinner Monday evening.
Higgins now drives a school bus in the area. Other survivors teach, sell real estate, work in factories, sell medical devices. Many have children who are about the same age they were when the crash occurred.
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.
Associated Press Writers Joan Lowy in Washington and Brett Barrouquere in Louisville, Ky., contributed to this report.