Entire school bus kidnapped by masked men who buried 25 kids and driver alive

It was the end of another ordinary day at elementary school for a bus full of children on a July day in 1976.

But they soon became victims in the largest kidnapping in the history of the United States.

At around 4pm on July 15, a school bus with 26 children was hijacked by three armed gunmen, wearing pantyhose over their faces, as they headed home from the Dairyland Elementary School in Chowchilla, California.

The children and their school bus driver were transferred to vans and were driven for nearly 12 torturous hours before being buried alive inside a truck trailer underground.

Inside the vans, the kidnappers had constructed makeshift jail cells by installing wood panelling and even painting the windows.

Survivor, Larry Park said: "As a 6-year-old … the only way that I can describe this darkness is that it was trying to get me.

"The kidnappers sped off with the children caged in their mobile prisons."

Another survivor, Jennifer Hyde added: "And I felt like I was an animal going to the slaughterhouse.

"Around that time, Jennifer and Jeff's mom, Joan Brown, came home from work to an empty house."

Once hidden in the dark under a quarry in Livermore, the kids were held hostage for another 16 hours before they made a harrowing escape.

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They were buried in a disused moving van when school bus driver Frank Edward Ray and some of the older children wedged the lid open with a piece of wood and moved the batteries; they then dug away the remainder of the debris blocking the entrance.

Eventually, the group emerged and walked to the quarry's guard shack, near the Shadow Cliffs East Bay Regional Park.

Meanwhile, the kidnappers had been unable to call in their intended ransom demand of $5 million because telephone lines to the Chowchilla Police Department were tied up by media calls and families searching for their children.

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Over 400 reporters had swarmed the area after reports emerged of the missing children.

Authorities had already found the empty school bus – they just needed to find the kids.

When police found them, as evidence they took photos of every child. Then they transported them to the closest place that could hold them — the Santa Rita Rehabilitation Center, a local jail.

Over the next few hours, Ed Ray and the children were examined by doctors. They were also questioned by officers but knew very little about their kidnappers.

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Hyde said: "How do you describe somebody that has pantyhose over their face? After four long hours of questioning, they were finally allowed to go home."

However, the police had a hunch about the involvement of the quarry owner's son, 24-year-old Frederick Newhall Woods IV as he had keys to the quarry.

He and his two friends, brothers James and Richard Schoenfeld had also had previous convictions for grand theft auto.

A warrant was issued for their arrest after police recovered a gun used in the kidnapping from their possession.

The trio was eventually convicted of the crime. By 2015, both Schoenfeld's had been paroled. The next parole hearing for Woods is scheduled for 2024.

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