By Connie Leonard
LOUISVILLE (WAVE) -- Wednesday will be a solemn day around the Bluegrass as the nation marks the 20th anniversary of the Carrollton bus crash. The May 14th, 1988 crash killed 27 people, mostly children. 34 of 67 passengers were injured, many of them suffering serious burns. The aftermath led to lower blood alcohol standards for drinking and driving and increased safety standards for school buses. WAVE 3's Connie Leonard talked with a survivor who is now ready to continue the fight for change.
"My name is Ciaran Madden and I'm a survivor of the Carrollton bus accident."
20 years after the last child was pulled from the burning wreckage, Ciaran (pronounced Karen) is finally ready to talk about the day her life was forever changed.
Back then, Ciaren Madden was Ciaran Foran. She was a 13 year old girl whose only goal was to have a fun at Kings Island.
"I was very, very excited about it," Ciaran says.
With 66 others, Ciaran boarded a crowded church bus in Radcliff back in 1988.
"There was times that there were four people to the seats," Ciaran recalled.
After a long day of roller coasters, Ciaran and friend Emilee Thompson fell asleep on the way home until a jolt woke them in the darkness.
"I heard a bunch of yelling and screaming, 'get out! Get out!' recalls Ciaran.
A drunk driver, Larry Mahoney, was going the wrong way on Interstate 71 when he slammed head-on into the bus. Ciaran remembers thick black smoke and the panic to get out. A passerby tried to help.
"At that time, I fell back into the bus and my feet popped out and he grabbed my feet and pulled me," she said. "I was still on fire. I was totally engulfed in flames. I do remember that. He picked me up and started running with me and then the bus exploded."
A few minutes later, Ciaran saw her reflection in a metal cabinet in the ambulance. She said it looked just like a big black ball.
"My face, my neck, my right arm all the way down to my hand. My hand was burnt to the bone," Ciaran said.
Her trachea was also seriously damaged. Ciaran's friend Emillee didn't make it. The childhood she knew was gone.
"I went from 13 to 20 in a night," she said.
Despite numerous surgeries, the pain of name calling at school proved to be some of the worst pain.
"This happened in this community. This was North Hardin High School, this was J.T. Alton where it happened, but the kids were still mean, says Ciaran.
Ironically, emotional healing came from a strange source -- the man she knew as a monster.
"I became a Christian and that's when you have to forgive," Ciaran says.
Larry Mahoney's mother gave Ciaran the address.
"It sat on my dresser I would say for two weeks and finally I sent it," she said about a letter she wrote to Mahoney while he was in prison.
Mahoney agreed to meet her and fellow bus crash survivor Katrina McNichol.
When the three met, she says, "He balled like a baby and so did we."
Ciaran says that she lives the accident on the outside and looks at it in the mirror every day. But she says Mahoney lives it on the inside.
"He goes to bed every night knowing he killed 27 people," says Ciaran.
After years of correspondence, a big disappointment followed Mahoney's release from prison. The letters stopped and the promise to speak out about the crash never surfaced.
"What upsets me the most is that he says it in those letters that ... that's what he's going to do. It's 20 years now, do it," says Ciaran.
Still, she has compassion for Mahoney. Ciaran says her children helped her find it. Another big step is that Ciaran's fear of getting on a school bus is over. That is thanks to her husband Scott -- a bus driver.
She says, "He talked to me through the whole ride."
Unfortunately, what hasn't changed in 20 years is the number of people who choose to drink and drive. The recent arrest of John Hardin High School principal Alvin Garrison for DUI in the Radcliff community gets her blood boiling.
".134 was his blood alcohol level. Ok, how -- when Larry's (Mahoney) wasn't much higher -- how? And now he's back in school," Ciaran said while looking at the police report of Garrison's arrest. "How does the nation accept it?"
Mahoney has never spoken publically about the crash. Ciaran tried to contact him several months ago, but he never returned her calls.
Ciaran tells me she hopes to pick up the fight against drinking and driving that other victim's families and survivors been battling for years.