Photo: Alameda County Sheriff's Office / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The Story Of The Chowchilla Bus Kidnapping, One Of The Biggest Abductions In US History

In July 1976, summer school was in full swing in the small California town of Chowchilla, and bus driver Ed Ray had 26 children in his care as he drove them home. Out of nowhere, three men blocked the bus and perpetrated one of the largest-scale kidnappings in US history.

As if the abduction from a school bus - what is supposed to be a safe location - weren't enough, the three male kidnappers loaded their 27 targets into windowless vans for transport to a poorly made underground prison without sufficient food or water. Luckily for the children, Ray was determined to protect them and, joined by one of the students, succeeded in securing their escape.

Still, while the story has a seemingly happy ending, the long-term effects of captivity on the children, as well as the senseless reasoning behind the event, continue to haunt survivors and the town itself.

Photo: Alameda County Sheriff's Office / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

  • Bus Driver Ed Ray Was Taking A Group Of Children Home When The Vehicle Was Hijacked

    Bus Driver Ed Ray Was Taking A Group Of Children Home When The Vehicle Was Hijacked
    Photo: 48 Hours / CBS

    Ed Ray drove his school bus full of 26 children ages 5 to 14 on his normal route on July 15, 1976. The children enjoyed a day at the pool before starting their journey home with their much-loved driver. Upon reaching a white van stopped in the middle of the road, Ray attempted to maneuver around it before being stopped by an armed gunman with pantyhose on his head. "Would you open the door, please?” is all the transgressor said, and Ray complied.

    Once the door was open, two more armed men with their faces obscured by women's stockings boarded the bus. One took over the driver's seat while the other two retreated back to their white van to travel to the next location. This was around 3:30 to 4:00 in the afternoon.

  • Armed Men Loaded The Children Into Vans, Leaving The Bus Abandoned

    Armed Men Loaded The Children Into Vans, Leaving The Bus Abandoned
    Photo: Vanished Without a Trace / ABC

    The hijacked bus and the white van stopped a mile from the initial scene of the crime, and the men began unloading the children and herding them into a white van and a green van. The kidnappers forced the children to jump from the safety of their bus into the windowless vans in an attempt to avoid leaving footprints for police to follow. 

    Abandoning the yellow school bus in the brush, the two vans sped off with the children and Ray inside. The drive to a third location took around 12 hours, with the children and Ray left in the back of the pair of vans without food, water, or any accommodations.

  • The Hostages Were Forced Into A Crumbling Underground Bunker

    The Hostages Were Forced Into A Crumbling Underground Bunker
    Video: YouTube

    The destination of the two vans and their prisoners was a rock quarry in Livermore, CA, more than 100 miles from Chowchilla. Once there, Ray and the children were once again unloaded and then herded into a buried truck trailer 12 feet from the surface of the quarry. Inside the makeshift cell were dirty mattresses, water, toilets, and food, but no airflow for the already suffering children. 

    The kidnappers forced each child to provide their name and a piece of clothing for the ransom demands the three men planned to make. After imprisoning their targets, the three men began shoveling even more dirt on top of the already covered trailer, causing the roof to buckle and the children to panic.

  • The Townspeople Noticed The Children's Absence Just 15 Minutes After They Disappeared

    Ray was so reliable as a bus driver that parents began questioning where their children were within 15 minutes of their failure to come home. The police were notified, local television stations were alerted, and groups of parents began searching for their missing children immediately.

    Around 6:30 that night, police put a plane in the air to search for the missing bus before it was located two hours later by a sergeant. No clues were found at the abandoned bus, and even President Gerald Ford and California Governor Jerry Brown gave agencies carte blanche to do whatever was necessary to find the children. The FBI filled Chowchilla's hotels as they joined in the search.

  • Ray Was Able To Keep The Children Calm While The Ceiling Crumbled And Food Ran Out

    Ray Was Able To Keep The Children Calm While The Ceiling Crumbled And Food Ran Out
    Photo: 48 Hours / CBS

    Although the kidnappers provided some food and water for Ray and the children in his care, it wasn't enough for the nearly 12 hours they had spent in the makeshift prison. Even worse, it appeared the ceiling was beginning to buckle under the weight of the earth above.

    They needed to take action - and quickly. The water served as a cooling device for the sweating captives as they stacked mattresses in an attempt to reach the hole in the trailer's roof. Throughout the ordeal, Ray allowed the children to sing to keep their spirits up and did his best to keep them calm, planning with two of the older kids to reach the hole in the roof to escape.

    His quick thinking and leadership played a vital role in keeping the children safe.

  • After 16 Hours Underground, The Hostages Escaped And Found Help

    After 16 Hours Underground, The Hostages Escaped And Found Help
    Photo: 48 Hours / CBS

    After stacking mattresses to reach the hole in the trailer's roof, Ray took turns with 14-year-old Michael Marshall to push on the manhole cover blocking their escape. This required removing wooden slats from the provided box springs in their prison, pouring water over themselves to stave off exhaustion, and using all their strength and willpower to move not only the cover but the two tractor batteries on top of it.

    Once the manhole cover finally acquiesced to their prodding, Michael began to dig a way out of the 12 feet of dirt. Ray led the children out, and their presence at the quarry alerted a nearby worker who gave them some Pepsi and alerted authorities. Another bus, this time a Greyhound, arrived to take Ray and the children to the Santa Rosa Correctional Institute where they received necessities and a once-over by doctors before their trip back to Chowchilla.