Much has happened since that day. Forgiveness, for one thing; but these are my memories of that day and the few days following.
On May 14, 1988, a Sunday morning, I had stayed home from Church to finish a paper I was writing for my Master's degree. It was a "Lit" paper and it was due in a week; so, I broke a life-time rule and stayed home from Church to finish it. I had taken the phone off the hook so that I wouldn't be distracted. As it turns out, I was distracted, anyway.
Towards mid-morning, two policemen knocked on my door. When I saw them, my blood ran cold, and I thought my husband had been in an accident on the way home from Church and was hurt, or one of my children. So I sat down. I'll never forget the looks on their faces. They were holding their hats in their hands and twisting them around and around, so I knew something bad had happened. Men just don't take their hats off any more when they come into a house or meet a lady. They told me to call my brother. I said, “Which one.” They just looked at each other. They didn't know which one. So I called my younger brother, Michael. He was always the protector; the first to come to your aid and fight for you, even though he was the “baby” of the family and so much younger. He was aptly named. I guessed correctly.
I called Michael while the two policemen stood in my dining area twisting their caps in their hands and alternately looking at me, the floor, and each other. As soon as Mike answered, he said, “Josh is dead.”
A storm entered my brain, and blackness swirled behind my eyes. “Did you say, 'dead'? Who is dead? What do you mean, 'dead'?” I couldn't understand this word. What did it mean?
“Yes, there are 27 bodies burned and melted together so much that they can't tell one body from another.”
“They're all burned and melted together? They can't separate the bodies?” At this point I saw out of the corner of my eye the policemen quietly leave.
I can't describe the mental images going through my mind at that moment. Where was Becky, their mother and my sister? Where was Larry, their father? What happened? Why???
A drunken man was driving the wrong way down an interstate highway and had hit head on the yellow school bus which had become their Church bus. The gas tank exploded into a ball of fire at the front of the bus, blocking the children's and chaperons' exit. Black, acrid smoke from the vinyl seats mixed in the air with the searing flames. Screams and prayers filled the air as everyone fell and climbed over each other in a frantic effort to get out the back emergency door. Once outside, children and adults were burning. One man, his body all aflame like a torch, stood with arms outstretched as he burned, flames leaping from his whole body, and cried, “Lord, I'm coming home!” The children and adults who managed to get outside of the bus lay burning as passers by stopped and rushed to give what aid they could. Those trapped in the bus piled up near the emergency door.
When the injured had been taken to hospital, and chaos reigned, rumors abounded. Mothers and fathers rushing frantically searching for their children. Someone said that Josh had managed to get out of the bus by climbing out of a window, but he had gone back in to rescue his younger brother Aaron. When he got back into the bus, he found Aaron and pushed him out of a window as Aaron burned, then Josh collapsed.
Outside the bus, Aaron's body burned, and he lay on the ground silent while a kind passer by talked with him and did what he could until the paramedics got him to the hospital. Aaron's lungs were completely filled with black soot. He was burned over almost 90% of his body—his tissue had been literally on fire. The doctors said he couldn't live. My sister, ashen faced and moving as if in a dream, stayed at the hospital while her other son was buried. She said, “I must stay with the living.” She lived in that hospital for days and weeks until he could come home. Even then, he had to wear a body suit that covered even his face for a year to prevent the scars from becoming too thick. I don't even know how many plastic surgeries he endured. It is truly a miracle that Aaron survived. He was twelve years old, if I remember correctly.
At Josh's funeral, everybody kept coming up to me, hugging me, crying, and asking how I was. I was perplexed until someone in the family reminded me of how much I look like my sister. I hadn't realized how much until then. Becky did not attend her son's funeral. She was at the hospital tending to the living. It was a closed casket. We didn't know “how much” of Josh was in that black bag hidden in the fancy box, but we hoped it was all him and not mostly him and maybe bits of some of his friends. As the funeral processed to the graveyard, people in their yards along the road stopped and bowed their heads. Cars pulled over and stopped. I really don't remember the graveside service. My memory stops there.
Aaron survived, grew up, married and has children of his own, but he has excluded his mother completely from his life. She has not seen her grandchildren since they were born.
Josh died at fifteen years of age.
My sister Rebecca and her husband Larry divorced a few years after the accident.
Larry Mahoney, the drunk driver, was seriously injured, but recovered. He was convicted and sentenced to seventeen years in prison and served eight of those years. He lives with this every day, and the forgiveness that has been given to him from the victims' families.
My sister's family is no more.