Landmark News Service
The nightmare of May 14, 1988, remained in Joe Percefull’s head for many years.
Night after night he dreamed it was one month before his 15th birthday and he was at King’s Island on a church outing with his friends.
Despite the sunny spring sky and beautiful, blissful day at the park, a cruel, dark storm lurked just over the horizon, carrying with it death. And only he knew.
In his dream, reoccurring three and four times a week, Percefull told those with him of the horror to come. He begged them not to board.
“They all laughed,” he recalled of his lucid feeling of hopelessness forever suspended in his sleep.
His dream would drift forward, to after the bus had stopped to fill up and was heading down the interstate, heading home to Hardin County.
It drifted forward to a split second before a black Toyota pick-up, driven by a drunken driver, slammed into the passenger headlamp and sent fire roaring from the tank.
Sitting in the third row, Percefull repeatedly braced for the hell that would come in his dreams night after night after night.
“I said goodbye to all my friends,” he recalled powerlessly. “Then I would see that flash of light we had seen that night, then impact.”
The simplest thought crossed Joe Percefull’s mind after the front axle dropped off the bus and they stopped skidding, just before the eruption of smoke and flames.
“We hit something. And they’re going to have to send a new bus to pick us up.”
No bus was ever sent for them. Many rode away in helicopters and ambulances. Twenty-seven of them were carried away by angels.
Two decades have passed since Larry Mahoney drove drunk the wrong way up a divided highway and smashed into a bus carrying teenagers and chaperones from the Radcliff Assembly of God.
Twenty years since. 7,305 days. 29,260 hours. More than 1.7 million seconds. Each person impacted by it is somewhat defined by that one moment.
Several reflect in speeches at churches and in schools. Parents began working with Mothers against Drunk Drivers. Media repeatedly retell the story.
When the national networks called in 1999, after Mahoney was released from prison, Lee Williams slipped away to Louisville to enjoy dinner and a movie with his wife.
He lost his wife and two daughters in the wreck. His second wife, Dottie, lost her husband and her daughter suffered burns on over half her body.
The reporters wanted to know if he was mad about Mahoney’s release.
“Why get upset over something you can’t control?” Williams reflected about the moment. “I didn’t sentence him; a judge and a jury did. He did what he had to do. ee We decided if he’s going to have a good day, then we’re going to have a good day.”
The crash helped spur bus safety improvements, more exits were added and seats were fire proofed. And it served as a grim reminder of the need to strengthen DUI laws.
It stays ingrained in the mind of every Kentuckian as much as the legend of Adolph Rupp or the Run for the Roses.
A solemn sign reminds motorists on the highway.
Moving back while looking forward
Life continues for the surviving passengers and family members. Harold Dennis, badly burned in the wreck, played football at the University of Kentucky.
Radcliff is a military community, and many families affected left Fort Knox after the wreck.
For others, such as Williams, then stationed at Ireland Army Community Hospital, it kept them here.
“I chose not to (leave) because of my church,” he said. “My support group was my church. I learned a long time ago, when you don’t know what to do, you stay put.”
“The bus accident made it home for me,” said Ciaran Madden, a bus crash survivor who moved to Hardin County from Arkansas shortly before the wreck to live with her dad.
Many married, started families, and now have children nearing the same age as them when their lives were torn inside out.
Percefull now teaches at Oldham County Middle School. He’s traveled a long road since the days after his nightmare began.
By his latter years of high school, he became angry at God and placed little value on his life. Percefull sped at 100 mph down Decker School Road, blowing past any reasonable answer of why.
“I honestly told myself, ‘I don’t care about myself. I don’t care what happened,’” he recalled.
He found peace when he switched his major at the University of Louisville from pre-law to education. Percefull found his calling in helping young people.
He watched a memorial service for victims from his hospital bed. He didn’t know for several days that his best friend, Joshua Conyers, had died.
“He was the reason I was there,” Percefull said. “I never really got to grieve with my friends.”
For Williams, who this week took flowers to Poplar Bluff, Mo., to place on the graves of his wife and daughters, the first year was torturous.
“You go through the first birthdays and they aren’t there,” he said. “The first anniversary, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Those are the days that hurt most. What bothered me was not the pain but the loneliness.”
Williams still has a video of his wife and kids that has not been viewed since.
“I remember it but I don’t want to watch it,” he said.
Moving forward while looking back
Reminders surround Percefull, some grim, some pleasant. The prison where Mahoney served much of his sentence can be seen from the middle school baseball field.
His second son’s middle name is Joshua.
Though the dreams have subsided, memories often pop into his head.
“It comes up quite often,” said Percefull, whose parents still live in Vine Grove. “I think about the people who died. That kind of sticks with you.”
Crash survivor Conrad Garcia Jr. served two tours in Iraq as a medic, including one during the initial invasion of the country.
Visiting friends in the burn units of Louisville hospitals intrigued him with medicine and strengthened him to help burn and shooting victims in a war zone.
“It’s a reminder of how lucky some of us were,” he said.
Madden notes that her oldest son, Zach, 11, learned of the accident through his school’s DARE program, as her 16-year-old nephew also learned of it in his school, located three states away.
Her brother-in-law served in Kosovo with a Kentucky State Police trooper who worked the scene of the collision.
Each time she hears the story, it again hits home.
She now has three kids and two stepchildren.
Two weeks ago she wanted to get a tattoo on her back, commemorating her sons and daughters. She instead got one on her leg. The artist declined to place it on her back because of the scar tissue from the wreck.
“And that broke me again,” she said.
Williams proudly shows off a half dozen 8-by-10 photos of his grandkids, hung on a wall outside his ministry office. Before, he said, alcohol had stolen his title of Dad.
But by finding love again with a survivor and enjoying a family again, he recreated memories once stripped from him.
“This is what I thought never would happen,” he said, smiling in front of the pictures, where space has been added for an expected seventh grandchild. “Nothing’s too hard for God.”
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