Lying trapped on the filthy front floorboards of a 1984 Oldsmo-bile Firenza, her legs chained together to keep her from fleeing, 8-year-old Midsi Sanchez realized her life hung in the balance. Forty-four hours earlier, according to police, a 39-year-old stranger had forced her into his car as she walked home from school in Vallejo, Calif., 30 miles north of Oakland. Now, Midsi knew that if she didn't do something soon, she might not ever see her family again.

Then her abductor made a mistake, and Midsi made her move. When the man left his keys in the car when he went to get cash and food, Midsi quickly grabbed them and tried key after key until she found the one to the padlock securing her chains. Bolting from the car, she flagged down Viking Freight driver Carl Tafua, 34. "Help me, help me!" she yelled as she climbed up on the driver's side of Tafua's truck and dove through the window. "My name is Midsi Sanchez, and I am the girl from Vallejo who was kidnapped!"

Reacting coolly, Tafua radioed for help and waited with Midsi until police arrived. With help from witnesses, police later arrested Curtis Dean Anderson, a convicted felon whom Midsi would identify as her abductor. That night she returned home to an emotional welcome. "She is very brave, and we are proud of her," says her relieved mother, Susana Velasco, 30, a hair stylist who, along with her husband, carpenter Juan Carlos Sanchez, 31, barely slept or ate in the nearly three days their daughter was missing. "We were really lucky that [Tafua] was there at the right time." Little Midsi was also lucky that her parents had pointedly talked to her, her three brothers and one sister about the dangers facing children, encouraging them to watch newscasts and coaching them on what to do in a kidnapping. "Those parents really did something right," says Janice Gomes, head of the National Community Empowerment Program, an organization devoted to educating kids and adults against being victims. "For a child to have such a level head, to keep thinking, is remarkable."

The fear that haunts most parents was particularly fresh in the minds of Midsi's mother and father, who were alarmed by the unsolved disappearance of another Vallejo girl, 7-year-old Xiana Fairchild, just last December. Police are now investigating whether Anderson, who served six years in prison for kidnapping a woman in 1991 and was released on parole 18 days before Xiana vanished, played a part in that disappearance.

Such dark thoughts were surely not on Midsi's mind as she walked home from the year-round Highland Elementary School in Vallejo around 3 p.m. on Aug. 10. The third-grader had just turned 8 and was excited about her birthday party, planned for that weekend. Coincidentally, Susana Velasco had just begun allowing Midsi to return from school without her, provided she stick close to her 10-year-old brother Ismael. But that day Midsi ran a block in front of him.

Midsi, however, was not by herself. According to police, Anderson pulled up to the curb, got out and pushed her in. She screamed, as her parents taught her to do, but no one was near enough to hear. With the child shackled and tucked below the passenger seat, police say, Anderson drove 70 miles south to Santa Clara, where he sometimes worked as a dispatcher for a company that returns lost airline luggage and where he intended to ask former coworkers for cash.

In Vallejo, Midsi's parents quickly swung into action, printing fliers, phoning friends and organizing search parties. By the second night, though, Velasco was in deep despair—as awful a feeling as she has ever experienced. "I don't want other moms to feel like I did," she says.

According to police, it was around 11 a.m. on Aug. 12, after Anderson pulled up to the company where he had worked, that Midsi fled and flagged down Tafua's delivery truck. "I came around the corner and noticed a little girl crying," says Tafua, a father of seven who hadn't been scheduled to be on duty but who had volunteered for an extra shift. "I wasn't meant to work, but I was meant to be there." Spotting Tafua, the kidnapper scurried into his car and drove away. But witnesses helped police identify Midsi's abductor as Anderson, and he was later arrested and charged with kidnapping and 10 sexually related counts.

The night she returned home, Midsi celebrated a very special birthday, prancing with friends in a huge, inflated castle set up in the backyard of her home while 100 guests and relatives enjoyed steak and tortillas. The house was also filled with presents from well-wishers, including a pile of stuffed animals and a robotic dog named Poo-Chi that entranced her. "It feels good to be home," says the little girl, snuggling close to her father. "I was really happy when I saw my parents and brothers and sister. I cried a lot."

Midsi will undoubtedly need lots of time and attention to cope with the effects of her ordeal. But for now she is happily back in school—and her mother is once again picking her up. An enthusiastic soccer fan who loves to dance, dress up and read, she has already polished off the newest 734-page Harry Potter book. Like the resourceful hero of that magical series, Midsi has proved that she too has the wisdom to escape a desperate situation. "She's very smart, and she saved herself," says Lt. Jo Ann West of the Vallejo police department. "If she hadn't done that, I don't know if we ever would have found her."

Alex Tresniowski
Frances Dinkelspiel in Vallejo

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