While police and family members frantically searched for 26 children and their bus driver, Frank Edward “Ed” Ray, the abductees were trapped in a moving van that had been buried in a Livermore, California quarry. The first 12 hours in captivity were agonizingly slow, with many, especially the younger children, feeling claustrophobic and very afraid.
Meanwhile, the abductors made repeated attempts to phone in their ransom demand – $5 million – to Chowchilla police. None of their efforts reached the police department, which was overloaded with calls from relatives, media and tips from the public.
When the kidnappers had not returned after 12 hours, the group became even more uncertain of the kidnappers’ motives. Would they be released unharmed? Would they be killed? Or, the most terrifying option, would they be left to die where they were? Reasoning that escape was their best, if not only, option, Ray began to look for a way out.
The key to their escape lay in the mattresses scattered throughout the moving van. Working together, Ray and the older children stacked the mattresses on top of each other, making a pile tall enough to reach the opening in the van’s ceiling. Unfortunately, due to the weight of the batteries atop it, the cover was impossible to move. Scanning the van for something to assist in their escape, the group found a large piece of wood.
After several attempts, they were able to wedge the wood into a small crack at the edge of the opening, moving the cover just enough to reach and move one of the batteries. With half the weight gone, Ray could reach the other battery and assorted debris on the cover, allowing the group to escape and get help from workers at the quarry. Ray and the children spent a total of 16 hours in the moving van.
The hostages were carefully examined and found to be in good health – just exhausted, hungry, and thirsty. Police fed them, gave them water, and returned them to their families in Chowchilla early in the morning of July 17, approximately a day and a half after their abduction. The kidnappers learned of their hostages’ escape on the morning news.
Faced with the loss of their ransom income, and fearing that authorities would come for them at any time, the kidnappers had to decide what their next move should be. Two of the three chose to flee the area. The third stayed and confessed to his parents, but the trio’s undoing was a series of mistakes made by one of the now-missing men.