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  • 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.