On July 15, 1976, three men in their 20s seeking $5 million in ransom hijacked a busload of 26 schoolkids in Chowchilla, Calif. They forced the driver and children, ages 5 to 14, to climb through a hole in the ground into a moving van buried in a rock quarry. After sealing the hole, the kidnappers took off, leaving their hostages buried alive for 16 hours. They escaped by stacking mattresses the kidnappers had left, moving a metal plate and two industrial batteries to seal the roof and digging through 3 ft. of dirt. The kidnappers were caught, convicted and sentenced to life. But after the former sheriff, prosecutor and judge in the case lobbied for parole-arguing that murderers had served less time-one, Richard Schoenfeld, 58, was set free June 20 after serving more than 35 years. His release has stirred terrifying memories.
Jodi Heffington Medrano, salon owner, Chowchilla. Age then: 10 They commandeered the bus with shotguns. Richard poked a gun in my belly. "What did I do?" I asked. He said, "Shut up." One said, "Tell me your name or you are never going to see your mommy and daddy again."
Rebecca Reynolds Dailey, Brookville, Pa. Age: 9
They had panty hose over their faces. I was so scared. We could hear them shoveling dirt. We knew they weren't coming back. We screamed until we were worn out.
Lynda Carrejo Labendeira, teacher, Fresno. Age: 10
They left cereal, peanut butter and bread, but it was gone quickly. There was no ventilation, just a battery fan that died. It was like a grave, dark. Everyone had messed their pants, sweaty little bodies in 110 degrees. My sister passed out.
Michelle Robison Bishop, McDonald's worker, Chowchilla. Age: 11
When we were buried, I comforted a girl named Monica. She was just 5. I [later] named my daughter Monica. It reminds me I did something right.
Driver Ed Ray, who died May 17 at age 91, emerged as a hero, rallying the children and directing their escape.
He was a courageous man. He kept 26 scared children in line and made us feel safe.
We started stacking mattresses. Older kids started digging.
We were as afraid to get out as to stay in; were they out there? After all of us were out, we started walking. [Finally] a man drove up and said, "Oh my God. You're those kids."
About five kids testified against Schoenfeld, his brother James and the third kidnapper, Frederick Woods.
[Afterward] I felt ashamed. I became depressed. I didn't want to be touched. I gained 50 lbs.
Psychiatrist Lenore Terr conducted interviews with the young victims and followed up several years later; in 1981 she published a study on childhood posttraumatic stress disorder in The American Journal of Psychiatry.
They had a distorted idea about their future. They didn't count on a good career, getting married or a long life. They felt they would be killed, that another bad thing would happen. Some ended up in prison, others with drug and mental-health problems.
Larry Park, group home director, Merced. Age: 6
For much of his life, Park battled schizophrenia and addiction; sober now, he counsels others.
After the kidnapping I started to hear a voice in my head. When I was 11, it turned violent. I fantasized about killing my kidnappers. I've spent a lifetime blaming the kidnapping for everything that went wrong in my life. I don't know if that's fair. But the kidnapping blew all the problems I had before wide open.
Jennifer Brown Hyde, Nashville. Accounting assistant. Age: 9
I still sleep with a night light, can't ride a subway or go underground.
Medrano's son Matthew Medrano, 13
I understand why my mom has so many restrictions, why I can't ride a bus. One time I took one; she waited for me like I was gone my whole life.
Schoenfeld declined to comment. His lawyer says he's been a model prisoner and is "remorseful." Frederick Woods comes up for parole this fall. James Schoenfeld will be eligible for a parole hearing in 2013. The victims, despite their anguish, have found comfort and healing in one another. Out of touch for many years, some have reconnected through Facebook and at Ray's funeral.
It's been healthy for us to share our feelings. We have this unspoken bond. [At Ray's funeral] someone said, "We are glad we are here today." We all laughed because we are all here and we are doing well.