PIKEVILLE, Ky. (KT) – Jason Booher’s life has a definitive marker: There were the 13 years before May 14, 1988 and the 30 years after.
That’s the day a fiery church bus crash claimed 27 lives, including that of his best friend since first grade, on a rural stretch of interstate near the Ohio River town of Carrollton.
Booher survived that crash and went on to become a career educator, basketball coach and motivational speaker, telling people life can be like a roller-coaster ride, with many sharp twists and turns, as well as ups and downs that led to the highest highs and lowest lows.
This year marked the 30th anniversary of the Carrollton bus crash. Booher was one of 40 kids who lived through it. Twenty-four others, along with three adults, were killed.
The church bus from the Radcliff Assembly of God was returning home from a fun-filled outing to King’s Island, an Ohio amusement park, on a sunny day. Because school was in session in most districts, the Radcliff's kids had Kings Island largely to themselves. Booher’s girlfriend at the time attended the church and had asked him to come and to invite friends.
The bus was packed with a maximum load of 67 people – 63 kids and four chaperones.
Booher and his best friend, Chad Witt, were seated about five rows from the back. Booher was on the window seat, opposite the driver’s seat. They had just stopped to fill up the gas tank.
“We were headed toward Louisville, it was about 10 at night, joke-telling and talking about the day when all of the sudden, everybody slammed into the seat in front of us,” he said, describing what happened when a drunken driver slammed into the bus head-on.
“I didn’t know what happened,” Booher said. “In about a two-second pause, I straightened up and this big explosion happened by the stairwell. There was a big ball of fire roaring outside of the bus beside my ear.”
The fuel tank, which wasn’t protected with a steal cage like they are now required, ruptured and ignited an inferno on the 1976-model bus.
Booher saw the church youth director, Chuck Kytta, engulfed in flames. “He said, ‘Lord, I’m coming home!’” Booher recalled. “To witness that at 13 was unbelievable.”
The bus went to 1,500 degrees in about 90 seconds, he said. With the front door ablaze, everyone who could rushed for the rear emergency door, crawling over each other in an attempt to escape.
“Instead of going down the aisle as you’re trained to do in bus evacuation drills, we went on top of the seats,” he said. “There were already kids stacked to the top of the door.”
Coolers were in the aisles and many had tripped over them in the rush to the exit, he said.
Booher quickly made it to the back and leaped through a small opening near the top of the pile of kids who were trying to force their way out.
“I dove out the door and landed on the interstate,” he said. “I got up and started pulling kids out. Some of them were burned so badly it was down to the bone. I can remember laying all those burn victims out.”
Another friend was helping him get a girl out of the bus and he told her to grab her legs while he grabbed her hands. “She said, ‘I can’t! I said, ‘We have to get her away from the bus!’ She said, ‘Her legs are so hot its’s burning my hands!’ I cradled her in my arms and laid her in the grass. They were able to save one of her legs.”
The carnage was unimaginable and the smoke so thick they couldn’t see that there with others who didn’t make it out of the bus, he said.
“I was one of the lucky 40 that made it out,” he said. “Ten of us didn’t have any burns and everybody else was burned severely. Twenty-seven people were left on the bus that didn’t make it out including my best friend Chad Witt. Chad tried to go down the aisle because he was on the inside seat.”
Booher served as a pall bearer for Chad and went to funerals of many other friends. It was a nightmarish time.
Booher, motivated by that crash to make something of himself, vowed to never drink, but to go to become the first person in his family to go to college and devote his life to helping kids.
“I’ve never tasted alcohol or experimented with drugs and I’ve had as much fun as anybody,” he said. “I’m a living witness that you don’t need it. I talk about how the good Lord got me through all that. He had a hand in my whole life.”
One of Booher’s goals as a young basketball player growing up in Radcliffe was to help North Hardin win a state championship. The Trojans twice made it to Rupp Arena during Booher’s time in school but came up short of that dream.
He went on to the University of Kentucky and became the first college graduate from the family. Booher then started up the coaching ranks and came to Shelby Valley in 2004. Five years later he led them to the All A Classic state title and the next year in 2010 repeated the All A title and also won the Sweet Sixteen state championship in Rupp Arena.
Booher also landed a coaching and administrative job at Holmes High School in Covington before becoming the principal at Pikeville High School where he now works.
He speaks to students throughout the nation about the evils of alcohol and is also an advocate for bus safety. He said several live-saving changes have come about because of the horrific accident including much stiffer laws for drunken driving.
Booher’s wife, Hillary, would be a roommate at Eastern Kentucky University of Christy Peerman, who sat behind Booher with Wayne Cox on the Carrollton bus. Her father was the bus driver and perished in the fire.
Cox was Booher’s roommate at UK. They set up Booher and Hillary on a blind date and that started their love story.
Booher’s life connections with the Carrollton bus accident will never end.
His next goal is to run in the Boston Marathon. He has already qualified. If he gets in – thousands enter – he will dedicate the first 26 miles to the deceased victims and the last two-tenths of a mile to his best friend Chad.