He had suffered third-degree burns. His head was the size of a watermelon. His yellow nylon mesh shirt had melted onto his skin. He couldn't open his eyes. After hearing a few more gas explosions, he started running blindly away from the bus.
Meanwhile, Kim, who had been two rows behind her brother and escaped with less serious injuries, had to be restrained from jumping back onto the bus to find him. It turned out she had had every reason to panic: 27 people didn't make it off. They were killed by flames and smoke inhalation.
Harold was flown to Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville via helicopter. When his mother, Barbara, arrived, she did not recognize him. His head was bandaged, and tubes were running up and down his arms. His mouth was swollen shut, and his lungs had been so damaged that he couldn't speak. Once Harold could wiggle his fingers, two days later, he communicated by writing messages. The first thing he scribbled to his mother was, "Is Kim O.K.?"
By then Kim was getting better. She had spent three days in critical condition, but her her lungs had improved, and the second-degree burns on her ear and hands were nothing compared with those of her younger brother. After four days Harold was still on life support. Doctors were additionally concerned because he kept pulling the oxygen tube out of his esophagus during his frequent nightmares. The second time he did so, though, doctors saw that he was breathing comfortably, and they took him off life support.
Harold spent the next two weeks in intensive care with his mother at his side. She slept in a reclining chair a few feet from his bed and, when he was thirsty, fed him ice cubes. One morning Barbara went to get a cup of coffee, and on her return, when she stepped off the elevator on Harold's floor, she heard him let out a desperate, angry scream. She immediately knew why.
For days Harold had been asking the nurses for a hand mirror, only to be told that he wasn't ready. On this day, however, a new nurse was on duty, and Harold had turned on all his persuasive charm.
After Barbara heard the scream, she decided it was time for Harold to know everything. She pulled out newspaper clips from the memorial service: 27 people had died, she told him. It was the worst drunken-driving accident in U.S. history. Anthony Marks, one of Harold's best friends, who had been sitting right next to him, had perished. "So many people didn't make it," she told him. "But you're alive!"
Harold underwent four operations before leaving the burn unit. The skin around his eyes was reconstructed. Doctors rebuilt the top portion of his left ear using cartilage from his ribs and skin from his back. Other skin was cut from his thigh and used on his face. Harold managed to joke that his body looked like a checkerboard.
After two months of steady improvement, he returned home. By September he was well enough to start his freshman year at North Hardin High in Radcliff. He hoped to lead the life of a normal student—no easy task, given the fact that he had to wear a nylon bodysuit and mask.
On the first day of school most of his classmates smiled politely. They all knew about the crash. But a few of them teased him about the mask. Crushed, he swore never to wear it in public again. Although his mother tried to convince him his scars would heal faster with it on, she saw an upside to the situation. "He was more comfortable saying, 'This is how I look,' " she says. "If he didn't hide behind a mask, people would have to accept him."