More than forty years have passed, yet the nightmare of the Chowchilla school bus hijacking, in which 26 children, aged between five and 14, and their bus driver were kidnapped and buried alive in an underground box truck prison, haunts the survivors.
On July 15, 1976, three armed men in pantyhose masks hijacked a school bus carrying 26 students from Dairyland Elementary, along with the bus driver Ed Ray at gunpoint in the largest mass kidnapping in American history. They were held captive in an underground box truck in a rock quarry for nearly 16 hours before making a brave escape led by Ray.
An upcoming episode titled Remembering the Chowchilla Kidnapping on CBS 48 Hours this March 18, 2023, will chronicle the terrifying incident from decades ago in never-before-seen interviews with the survivors. The synopsis states:
"Twenty-six school children were abducted by three men and buried alive in a trailer. Inside their daring escape."
Remembering the Chowchilla Kidnapping airs on CBS this Saturday at 10 pm ET.
Twenty-seven were kidnapped during the 1976 Chowchilla kidnapping and held hostage in an underground truck prison
On July 15, 1976, around 4:00 pm, three armed men, namely Frederick Woods and brothers James Schoenfeld and Richard Schoenfeld, in a white van, blocked the road in front of a bus carrying 26 summer school students from Dairyland Elementary School on their way home after a trip to a nearby swimming pool. Bus driver Ed Ray was driving at the time.
Here's a list of all the 27 people who survived the Chowchilla kidnapping:
- Frank Edward "Ed" Ray (the driver)
- Lisa Ardery
- Monica Ardery
- Lisa Barletta
- Jeff Brown
- Jennifer Brown
- Irene Carrejo
- Julie Carrejo
- Lynda Carrejo
- Stella Carrejo
- Darla Daniels
- Johnny Estabrook
- Andres Gonzales
- Robert Gonzales
- Jody Heffington
- Sheryll Hinesley
- Mike Marshall
- Jody Matheny
- Andrea Park
- Larry Park
- Barbara Parker
- Judy Reynolds
- Rebecca Reynolds
- Angela Robison
- Michelle Robison
- Cindy Vanhoff
- Laura Yazzi
The alleged mastermind behind the operation, 24-year-old Frederick Woods, got on the bus with a pantyhose pulled over his head as a mask and a gun drawn out, ready to carry out one of the largest mass abductions in US history. He was joined by accomplices James and Richard Schoenfeld, who were dressed in identical attire and wielding sawed-off shotguns.
Survivor Larry Park, who was only six years old at the time, recalled,
"Where their eyes were, it was like, it almost looked hollow. It was like looking at death."
The kidnappers then drove the 27 hostages to a dry river bed, where they hid the bus and forced their hostages into two windowless vans. The children were then driven 100 miles away to a rock quarry in Livermore, where they were buried alive in a truck trailer 12 feet underground for nearly 16 hours before all of them, led by their bus driver, dug their way out and escaped.
Within two weeks, the kidnappers were apprehended, and investigators discovered incriminating evidence, including documents containing scripted plans for the kidnapping, which were later used to convict them of the Chowchilla kidnapping. All three were sentenced to life and have been granted parole over the years, with the most recent release being that of the alleged mastermind Frederick Woods.
Chowchilla kidnapping have come forward, breaking their silence about the ways in which the incident affected their lives
Multiple Chowchilla kidnapping survivors have recently come forward, speaking about the ways in which the incident traumatized and impacted them. According to ABC 30 Action News, Park openly spoke about still being traumatized by the incident and that he battled addiction and schizophrenia for most of his life. He said:
"There's hardly a day that goes by that I don't think about that incident."
Jodi Heffington, who was only ten years old when the Chowchilla kidnapping happened, recently broke her silence and told CBS,
"Nothing was ever the same. Nothing was ever the same after that ..."
Heffington further added,
"How that day affected me has affected me every day in some way or another. I think it made me not a good daughter, not a good sister, not a good aunt, and especially not a good mother ... I try to be those things. But it seems like, it just took something from me that I can't ever get back. And I can't tear down ... no matter how hard I try and no matter what I do."
CBS 48 Hours airs this Saturday with an all-new episode on the Chowchilla kidnapping.