As the yellow school bus cruised down Interstate 71, Harold Dennis's life was tranquillity in motion. It was late evening, and Harold was worn out from a long, sun-soaked day at an amusement park. He was snoozing away, his 14-year-old body sandwiched between those of two friends in the fifth row behind the driver. It would have taken a crash to wake him up.
At 10:55 p.m. Harold was suddenly thrown against the seat in front of him. He was startled and disoriented but unharmed. He gathered his wits, rubbed his eyes and took a deep breath.
His life would never be the same. "We were at a standstill," he recalls, "and then, all of a sudden"—he snaps his fingers—"there was an explosion."
Dennis is 21 now. He is a Division I college football player and dressed accordingly, wearing a black Nike baseball cap, a zirconium stud in his right ear and a gray sweat T-shirt emblazoned with the words KENTUCKY FOOTBALL. This season Dennis is a backup on special teams, and he has seen some action at wide receiver. He has come a long way since May 14, 1988.
Dennis clutches a pillow as he sits on a couch in his Lexington, Ky., apartment and talks about the accident that left his face permanently disfigured. The trip had started at about 8 a.m., in Radcliff, Ky., where 34 members of the First Assembly of God church youth group, 30 of their friends (including Harold and his 16-year-old sister, Kim) and three adults had piled into the bus and headed to Kings Island amusement park outside Cincinnati.
After countless rides on his favorite roller coaster, the Beast, Harold met the others at 9:30 p.m. for the two-hour return trip south. As the bus neared Carrollton, Ky., about 60 miles from Radcliff, northbound drivers on I-71 noticed a pickup truck headed north in a southbound lane. Barring a miracle, tragedy was moments away.
There was no miracle. The black Toyota truck slammed head-on into the school bus, piercing the bus's fuel tank. The bus burst into flames, and its interior was flooded with thick black smoke.
Harold tried to flee through his window, but it wouldn't budge. With flames coming into the front of the bus, the only escape route was the rear emergency door. But the aisle was only 12 inches wide, and the bus was crowded. From his spot in the fifth row, Harold's odds of surviving were slim.
Kids screamed and panicked, swarming the aisle, their bodies piling up. The smoke made it impossible to see, and the temperature in the bus skyrocketed to 2,000°. Harold thought he was trapped.
The next thing he knew, his body hit the ground outside the rear exit. How did I get here? he asked himself. He had blacked out, and to this day he can't answer that question. "I feel like God took me in his hands," he says, "and carried me back there."