School bus kidnapping

In 1976, twenty-six children riding in a California school bus were kidnapped at gunpoint and hidden inside a truck that was buried in a quarry. Twenty-seven hours later, after sixteen hours underground, they escaped.

American school bus
Ben Schumin, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I try to avoid writing about true crime because most of it is pretty grim – and we have enough darkness in the world right now. This crime, from 1976 central California, has a happy ending.

Twenty-six elementary school children and their bus driver were on the way back from a field trip. A van pulled in front of their bus and three masked men entered… with guns. One of them was in charge of driving the bus, another kept the kids, aged from five to fourteen, and the bus driver under control. The third drove the van behind them.

This all began at 4pm. The school bus, with kidnappers in control, drove to a second van. The kids were split into two groups and the vans drove around for the next eleven hours. In the early morning, they arrived in a quarry in Livermore (near San Francisco). Now, Livermore is less than two hours’ drive away from the abduction point, so the abductors were obviously trying something tricky to avoid being spotted. And boy did they have some more tricks in store.

The children and the bus driver disembarked from the vans, and found themselves in front of a hole in the ground with a ladder sticking out. When they descended, they discovered that the kidnappers had buried a whole truck in the quarry. A truck! It had mattresses, food, water, and not much else.

There are few places where you could effectively hide a bus full of children. But a buried truck was one of them: no-one except the kidnappers even knew it was there. It was a pretty bold plan, and the kidnappers were ready to call in their ransom demand (five million dollars). Just one problem: because of the media attention, they couldn’t get their call through. And while they were still trying, the kids and the bus driver made their own plan.

The only exit from the buried truck was in the roof, out of reach. The kids turned the mattresses into an impromptu staircase and got to the truck roof. But, of course, the exit was sealed with a metal sheet and weights. The bus driver managed to get out, along with the oldest child, and together they freed the rest of the captives. They had spent sixteen hours underground.

The three kidnappers were caught (or turned themselves in) within a fortnight; one of them was the son of the quarry owner. They all got hefty sentences. One of them is still in prison today.

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