FRESNO, Calif. - Frank Edward Ray, a school bus driver who became a hero for helping 26 California students escape after three kidnappers buried them in a storage van in 1976, has died. He was 91.
Mr. Ray was the only adult on board when his school bus packed with summer school kids was hijacked near Fresno. They were later buried in the van in a quarry, where Mr. Ray led them to safety after he and two older boys dug their way out as the kidnappers slept. No one was hurt.
The escape made national headlines and was turned into a TV movie, “They’ve Taken Our Children: The Chowchilla Kidnapping.’’
The driver and children all came from the small farm town of Chowchilla and the nearby community of Dairyland.
Many of the children went on to live in Chowchilla as adults and regularly visited Mr. Ray until his death. Jodi Medrano said Mr. Ray’s actions during the kidnapping gave hope to the children.
Medrano, who was 10 at the time, said she held a flashlight, helped move mattresses, and never left Mr. Ray’s side while they were trapped.
“I remember him making me feel safe,’’ Medrano said. “I remember he actually got onto me because I swore. Ray said, ‘You knock that off.’ I thought, whenever we get home I will be in so much trouble. That’s when I knew I was going home, because he made me have that hope.’’
Medrano, who runs a hair salon in Chowchilla, said she kept in touch with Mr. Ray and considered him a family friend. “Mr. Ray was a very quiet, strong, humble man. He has a very special place in my heart I loved him very much,’’ she said, crying.
Mr. Ray loved kids and they were his life, said his son Glen Ray.
“He told me that he felt it was his responsibility to get the kids back home to their parents safely; that’s all he could think about,’’ Glen Ray said.
Mr. Ray later recounted how he stopped the bus on that steamy July day to see if the drivers of a broken-down van needed help. Three armed, masked men forced Mr. Ray and the children, who ranged from 5 to 14, into two vans and hid the bus in a drainage slough.
The vans meandered for hours before stopping at a quarry 100 miles to the north in Livermore. The kidnappers sealed the children and Mr. Ray inside the storage van and covered it with 3 feet of dirt as part of their plan to demand $5 million ransom.
At the time, the Chowchilla Police Department was swamped with calls from reporters, and the kidnappers decided to take a nap before calling in their demand.
While they slept, Mr. Ray and two older children stacked mattresses, reached the opening at the top of the truck, removed debris, and emerged to safety.
Frederick N. Woods and brothers James and Richard Schoenfeld, members of well-to-do San Francisco Peninsula families, were convicted in the kidnapping and sentenced to life prison terms. None of the three have been paroled.
The trio, who were in their mid-20s at the time of the kidnapping, said they had fallen into debt because of a failed real estate deal, and that they had hatched the elaborate plan involving the bus as a way to rid themselves of financial worry.
Family members said Mr. Ray collected newspaper clippings about the kidnapping and bought the school bus he drove in 1976 for $500 as a memento and because he did not want it to go to scrap iron.
“He parked it in [the] barn and he’d go out and start it once in a while,’’ his son Glen Ray said.
He kept the bus for several years, and then gave it to an old equipment museum in Le Grande, where it is available for public viewing.
Mr. Ray leaves his wife, Odessa, two sons, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.