Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles 26 children buried alive. One of the largest kidnappings in US history. How in the world did a school bus full of children simply disappear? It's summer school, Thursday, July 1976. James Schoenfeld, his brother Richard, and Frederick Newhall Woods IV, watch a school bus load up with children. The three men all come from wealthy families, but in their early to mid twenties, the men have already made a plethora of bad decisions. Now they're hurting for cash, and they need to make a big score fast. The brothers, James and Richard, have already been convicted of grand theft auto, but given their age and family connections, the judge sentenced them to probation. These weren't violent offenders, their high-priced lawyer had pleaded, they were just dumb kids who made a dumb choice. They'd never again pose a threat to the community. The judge believed it, and 26 children would pay the price for it. The three men know well the route the bus is going to take. The bus, being driven by Frank Edward Ray- known affectionately as Ed by the local community- is preparing to bring the kids back home from a summer class trip to the local fairgrounds. The kids had spent the day swimming in the fairground pool and enjoying a very rare summer school field trip. The bus is cruising down a lonely back road, there's barely any traffic here- and that's exactly what the kidnappers are counting on. They've already raced well ahead of the bus, and are now prepared, waiting with a van just off the shoulder of the road. As the bus approaches, the van pulls out, completely blocking the road. Ed honks the bus's horn as he slows to a stop. He can't imagine what kind of idiot would just pull off the shoulder and block the road like that. He quickly glances back at the kids to make sure they're ok, and when he looks back out the bus windows he's shocked by what he sees. Three men have exited the van, nylon stockings over their heads and making their faces hard to see. The men have guns, which they're pointing directly at Ed. One of the men warns him not to throw the bus in reverse or make any dumb moves, as he signals for him to open the bus' door. Ed hesitates- if he lets this armed man into the bus, there's no telling what might happen to the children. Then again, the men could simply shoot him through the glass windows and force their way on anyways. There's no way to lock the bus door, and even if there was, an emergency door in the back of the bus would make it easy to get inside anyways. Ed decides it's better to simply cooperate, and says a quick prayer as he opens the bus door. One of the masked men immediately climbs aboard. The children begin to scream in fear as they see the man with a shotgun climb into the bus, but the man shouts at them and threatens them into silence. There's a few scattered whimpers from the children, but they comply. The man then tells them to put their heads down and keep them down. To Ed, he tells him to get off the driver's seat and sit down in one of the empty seats at the head of the rows of seats. The masked man sits across from Ed, pointing his gun at him the whole time. A second masked man climbs onto the bus and sits at the driver's seat. Outside, the third kidnapper hops into the van and puts it in gear, then moves it out of the way of the bus. The whole operation has gone smoothly up until now- no cars have driven by to catch them in the act, and the kidnapping has taken less than a minute. The man in the driver's seat puts his foot on the gas and the bus lurches forward, with the van falling in behind it. The man sitting across from Ed draws his attention once more to the gun. No hero stuff, he warns him. Just sit there quietly and everything will be fine. He repeats the last part once more out loud to the children. They're too scared to even look up. The bus takes a right off the paved road and onto a disused road. It bounces wildly as the driver accelerates, anxious to leave the paved road behind and get the bus deep into the wilderness and away from prying eyes. Finally, the bus arrives at the Berenda Slough, a shallow branch of California's Chowchilla River. The driver pulls the bus into the surrounding foliage as deep as he can, doing an adequate job of hiding the large school bus from view. The van pulls up behind the bus, and the men signal at the children to get up and start unloading off the bus in single file. Ed is forced to go first, the masked gunman never taking his eyes off the aging bus driver. Outside, the driver of the first van uncovers a second van that's been hidden nearby in the brush. Both vans have had their rear windows painted black, and the interiors are reinforced with paneling. The children and Ed are split into two groups, and ushered into the two vans. Once loaded, the doors to the vans are slammed shut. There is no light in the vans, and the blacked out windows keeps even the fading sunlight outside from getting in. Children whimper in fear in the darkness, some cry. Ed does his best to reassure the children, but his words fall on deaf ears. The vans start moving. Eventually Ed can feel the vans leave the gravel road behind and land on smooth pavement. The vans don't stop again. They just keep going, well into the night. The lack of circulation makes the vans stuffy, and despite it being nighttime now the California weather is still warm. The children haven't eaten or drunk anything in almost twelve hours, and heat stroke is a very serious concern in the blacked out vans. But the kidnappers keep on driving. Ed tries to keep track of time but it's impossible. He has no idea that by the time the vans finally come to a stop it's been almost 12 hours. The doors to one of the vans open up, and Ed is greeted once more by a man wielding a sawed-off shotgun. He's told to get out and follow, and the doors are slammed shut as he exits the van. A few feet away, Ed is led to a dark hole in the ground with a ladder sticking out of it. He's told to climb down, but Ed hesitates. He has no idea what's down there, there is no light- but the shotgun pressing against his back encourages him to move. Reluctantly, he climbs up onto the ladder and then makes his way down into the dark. To Ed's relief there's a small flickering light once he reaches the bottom. As his eyes adjust he can look around, and realizes he's inside a truck trailer that's been buried twelve feet into the ground. Above him is a hole the kidnappers cut in the roof, and as he looks around he spots a table at the head of the trailer. On the table are some jugs of water and some food- a few boxes of cereal, peanut butter and several loaves of bread, as well as some other odds and ends. Seeing the water and food, Ed finally realizes they've been kidnapped. That's actually a relief- for half a day now Ed has been wondering if he and the children were simply going to be killed. One by one the children are brought out of the van. As the kidnappers drag one child out of the van, they slam the doors shut again, then lead the child to the hole in the ground and tell them to climb. Down in the buried trailer, Ed does his best to encourage the children, not wanting the kidnappers to lose their patience and hurt one of them. Or worse. Some of the children try to hide all the way in the back of the vans, away from the doors. But it's of no use, the kidnappers simply climb into the vehicles and angrily drag the children out, then push them towards the hole. Consigning themselves to their fate, the last of the children finally climb down the stairs and into the trailer. Suddenly, the kidnappers toss a roll of toilet paper down into the hole and say, “We'll be back for you.” Then, the children can hear the sound of something heavy being dragged. To their horror, they realize that the kidnappers are dragging a large manhole cover over the hole leading to the outside world. Ed and 26 children have been buried alive. The only sound is the whirring of fans in the trailer, which is another bit of good news for Ed. This means that the kidnappers have at least thought of the possibility of asphyxiation and installed some sort of ventilation system. Where the wheel wells of the trailer are the kidnappers have cut holes, clearly intending for these to serve as makeshift bathrooms. Ed and one of the older boys stick their heads into the holes, hoping to see a way to escape their predicament. But the holes lead only to a small depression in the soil around the trailer, enough to serve as a toilet and nothing more. Pushing on the rear door of the trailer, they realize their worst fears- they are fully and completely buried alive, and the only way out is through the hole in the ceiling that's now been completely covered up. Frederick Woods and brothers James and Richard Shoenfeld can finally breathe a sigh of relief. The three kidnappers have driven the children to Wood's family quarry, where before the kidnapping they had buried a full-sized truck trailer. For several days the men had worked to secure the trailer and install a makeshift ventilation system. The trailer was all but impossible to find unless you knew where to look, and the quarry was remote enough. Half a day's drive away from the kidnapping site, the men are confident they've pulled off as nearly a perfect crime as possible. The only thing left to do is phone in their demands. They dial in the number to the Chowchilla Police Department- and are met with a busy signal. The men dial again, and once more receive a busy signal. They wait a few minutes, and yet again, another busy signal. Woods and the Shoenfeld brothers realize that they can't get through to the police department to place their ransom demands, figuring that the police are probably extremely busy as news of the kidnapping has spread. They have no idea just how right they are, as distraught parents and national media tie up every line to the small police department. The kidnappers try again and again, but fail to get through each time. Finally, they give up. They've been driving for half a day, and were up long before that. The men are exhausted, and with the children securely under twelve feet of dirt, the three kidnappers decide to get some rest. The police meanwhile have already found the abandoned school bus, and can tell by tire tracks on the scene that two other vehicles had departed the scene. For the terrified parents, this is mixed news. On the one hand, their children are still missing. On the other, there is every indication that the children are still alive. Police try to reassure the parents, telling them that this has likely become a kidnapping- they should be receiving a ransom demand soon and that means a chance to bring the children back home alive. The Chowchilla police chief, overwhelmed and out of his depth, places a call to the governor and requests help. Within an hour thirty FBI agents have arrived, and the hunt for the kidnappers is on. But for the children who've been buried alive, things are very quickly becoming lethal. They've been underground for half a day now. The food and water have run out, and the temperature inside the buried trailer is sweltering. Then, suddenly, one of the two fans pumping fresh air into the trailer dies. Ed and the oldest boy, 14 year old Mike Marshall are only too aware of what'll happen if the second fan fails, but they don't tell the rest of the children to keep them from panicking. Then, just a few minutes later, the second fan fails. There is no more fresh air being pumped into the buried trailer. But there was still room for things to get worse. The roof of the trailer has been reinforced with metal wire, but it has long ago started to fail. The roof is now buckling from the weight of the soil on top of it. Each torturous scream of metal sets the children into crying fits as dust rains down on them. Ed does his best to keep the children calm, knowing that their hysterics are sucking up precious oxygen. The kidnappers said they would be back for them, but with the fans out and the roof caving in, Ed knows that escape is the only option. Even if the kidnappers return, when they discover the collapsing roof and failed ventilation system, it's unlikely they'll have a backup plan for keeping Ed and all 26 children hidden from the authorities. That means only two things- either they'll let them go, or more likely, simply kill them all to avoid being caught. Ed hatches a plan. He enlists the aid of 14 year old Mike and begins to stack the old mattresses left inside the trailer on top of each other. Eventually they manage to create a high enough stack that Ed and Mike can reach the hole at the top of the trailer. But there isn't enough room for both to push on the heavy manhole cover blocking their escape route, so Ed and Mike must take turns pushing on the lid. Ed and Mike both know that they're fighting to survive a triple threat. The oxygen will soon run out, asphyxiating all of the children. The roof will cave in at any moment, burying all of them in thousands of pounds of dirt. And once the kidnappers return to discover their hiding hole for the children is compromised, they'll likely kill all of them in order to avoid being discovered. Mike pushes against the manhole cover with all his strength, fighting for all 27 lives buried in that trailer. Suddenly, the cover shifts a bit. Mike pushes even harder, widening a tiny little gap. The children below explode into cheers. But the manhole cover is barely nudging. Mike sticks a hand through the small opening he's created and feels around on top of the cover. He realizes that the kidnappers have stuck two heavy truck batteries on top of the cover. He works at the batteries for minutes, nudging them inch by inch and sliding them towards the edge of the manhole cover. Finally, he's pushed them off, and the cover becomes much easier to slide out of the way. And then Mike discovers that they're a far cry from freedom. Expecting to see the night sky above, Mike realizes that the kidnappers have built a wooden box around the entrance to the buried trailer. The box is just large enough for Mike to pull himself up into- far too small for Ed to help. If they're all going to survive, it's up to Mike now. Mike begins pounding on the walls of the box. He's terrified that he'll break through only to discover the kidnappers outside, waiting with guns. But he knows if they stay in the trailer they're as good as dead anyways, so he continues pounding on the wooden sides.