RADCLIFF, Ky. — Quinton Higgins lost his best friend when the church bus he was riding in 25 years ago was turned into a fireball by a drunken driver on a Kentucky road, in what remains the nation's deadliest alcohol-related highway crash.
In the town that still grieves for the 27 who perished, people gathered Tuesday evening to remember the victims and honor the perseverance of the 40 who made it out of the burning bus alive.
"We all still hurt and there's still a lot of pain that goes around," Higgins said. "But as I talk to other survivors, you have to look at it this way — through our tragedy, this is going to save lives."
The memorial service came on the 25th anniversary of the crash — a tragedy that is still evoked in discussions about the nation's policy on drunken driving. This week, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that states lower the legal limit for drunken driving from .08 percent to .05 percent, matching a level that has reduced highway deaths in other countries.
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." Board Chairman Deborah Hersman opened the meeting Tuesday in Washington by noting the devastation caused by that crash, which is also the subject of a new documentary.
Hours later, Higgins was part of a hushed crowd that heard the names of the victims and survivors read aloud in a Kentucky high school gym by a trio that included Jan Withers, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
"Tragedy broke our hearts but not our spirits," Martha Tennison said.
At the time of the crash, she and her husband were co-pastors of the Radcliff church that owned the bus.
The hour-long service took place in Radcliff, where the group's ill-fated outing to an Ohio amusement park began on the morning of May 14, 1988. Tennison recalled her husband saying that when the bus pulled away, a young person was waving from every window.
By late that night, 24 of the children and three adults were dead.
Before the service, Higgins said he wanted to see more than tributes to his best friend, Anthony Marks, and the others who died. He wants tougher laws against drunken driving.
Higgins, who was 15 when the crash occurred, now drives a school bus and teaches bus safety. He thinks the tougher standard would make the roads safer.
"I wish we'd go to zero tolerance," he said in an interview. "The lower it is, the more people will think before they actually take that drink."
NTSB officials said it wasn't their intention to prevent drivers from having a glass of wine with dinner, but they acknowledged that under a threshold as low as .05 percent, the safest thing for people who have only one or two drinks would be not to drive at all.
A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, or 1 ounce of 80-proof alcohol in most studies.
A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has estimated that 7,082 deaths would have been prevented in 2010 had all drivers on the road had a blood alcohol level below .08 percent.
Higgins said the tougher laws would be a fitting tribute to the Kentucky crash victims who had their lives cut short by someone so intoxicated that he was driving in the wrong direction when his pickup slammed into the bus on a stretch of Interstate 71 near Carrollton, Ky., between Louisville and Cincinnati.
The tragedy also led to major improvements in school bus safety.
The church bus was on its way home when it was struck. The pickup was being driven by Larry Mahoney, a chemical plant worker. His blood alcohol level was 0.24 percent, more than twice what was then the legal definition of drunken driving.
At the memorial, Karolyn Nunnallee said that for those who lost loved ones and friends in the crash, the "void still remains."
Nunnallee's 10-year-old daughter Patty was the youngest of those killed in the crash.
Nunnallee turned her grief into activism in the fight against drunken driving. She said that despite the tougher DUI laws that were enacted after the Kentucky crash, nearly 10,000 people die on U.S. roads each year due to drunken driving, which she called a "100 percent preventable crime."
"It is really inconceivable to me that this continues to happen," said Nunnallee, a former national president of MADD.
A tearful Carey Aurentz Cummins said she survived the "unimaginable tragedy and every day I've lived with the joy and the guilt associated with that fact."
Like many other survivors, she married, had a child and built a career.
"On the other hand, I know that 27 beautiful souls didn't make it off the bus that night," she said. "They were our fathers, our mothers, our sisters, our brothers, our friends, and we miss them every day."
The survivors, mostly teenagers when the crash occurred, have gone on to jobs as teachers, coaches, sales representatives and nurses, she said. They have more than 40 children among them.
But she said that "all of us have struggled along the way."
The memorial was part of two days of events to mark the anniversary of the tragedy. On Wednesday night, a public screening is set in nearby Elizabethtown for a new documentary recounting the tragedy, "IMPACT: After the Crash." Survivors were given a private screening Tuesday night.
Mahoney, the pickup truck driver, 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.
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.
He was not mentioned by name at the memorial, but he was not forgotten.
Said Tennison, "We're here today because one man made a bad choice."
Lowy reported from Washington. Associated Press Writer Brett Barrouquere in Louisville, Ky., also contributed to this report.
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