School Bus Driver Who Saved Students 'Was A Hero'
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. Funeral services were held today in Chowchilla, California, to remember a man who became a national hero 36 years ago. Frank Edward Ray was the school bus driver who guided 26 children to safety back in 1976 after kidnappers hijacked the bus and buried them alive at a rock quarry.
Many of the children trapped in the bus stayed in touch with Ed Ray, even visited him in his final days at the nursing home.
LYNDA CARREJO-LABENDEIRA: He had the lives of 26 children that he loved and cared about in his hands. He was the hero.
CORNISH: Lynda Carrejo-Labendeira was a passenger on Ray's bus that fateful July day. She's now 46 years old and a kindergarten teacher in Fresno, California, but she remembers the day well. She was 10 years old and riding with her three sisters.
CARREJO-LABENDEIRA: We had a fabulous day at school. We were celebrating our bicentennial with plays and songs and fun activities out in the park. So, after school, when we loaded the bus, we were signing petitions because summer school was so fun, we didn't want it to end. We wanted two more weeks of summer school.
CORNISH: But the mood quickly took a turn when the school bus slowed for a van in the middle of the road.
CARREJO-LABENDEIRA: There was a van with its hood up and it looked like it needed some help, so of course, the gentleman that Edward is pulled over a little slower and, as quickly as he could start to ask, can I help you, they took over the bus.
CORNISH: Masked gunmen drove Ed Ray and the 26 kids to a rock quarry about 100 miles away. They forced the group into a storage trailer, which was then buried underground. The kidnappers planned to ask for a $5 million ransom. Lynda Carrejo-Labendeira remembers how Ray and some of the older kids found an opening in the trailer and began to dig their way out.
CARREJO-LABENDEIRA: Edward was down in there and he was right up there digging 'til he cut his hands and his forehead and there were no tools to dig with, so he - they had to makeshift whatever they could find around them. And I remember Edward being cut and pouring water on his hands and helping clean them. That was, you know, the best I knew how to do.
CORNISH: After 16 nerve-wracking hours underground, the children and Ray managed to dig their way out unharmed. The three kidnappers were caught weeks later and sentenced to life in prison. They remain behind bars today. Lynda Carrejo-Labendeira says all these years later it was important to stay in touch with her old bus driver, Ed Ray.
CARREJO-LABENDEIRA: It's when you go through an ordeal together, you don't even have to talk about the ordeal ever again and we really didn't. We knew what happened and it was just an unsaid thing that you knew happened and that you knew that was your hero. But also, growing up, becoming a responsible adult is when I really realized the true hero that he was.
CORNISH: In what way?
CARREJO-LABENDEIRA: Setting the tone of the whole ordeal, just being the role model for all of us, keeping us calm and not overreacting or acting against what the kidnappers were doing. He was calm. He was a positive presence. He was comforting. He was caring. He was kind.
CORNISH: And I gather that Ed Ray started driving a bus pretty soon after the incident.
CARREJO-LABENDEIRA: Yeah. He continued to drive and we continued to ride and rode his bus and we tried to do normal things after. We knew it happened and we were told that it was not normal, it was a freak thing. And, in our own home, we didn't talk about it. I had three sisters on the bus and it wasn't an everyday topic or a topic at all. I think my sister and I spoke for the first time about it together last month.
CORNISH: Did it feel like you guys had a sort of responsibility to him, I mean, collectively in the community?
CARREJO-LABENDEIRA: I don't know that it felt so much that way. I think we just - it was something that happened. There's a great pride, more so than anything else. We knew he was our hero. We knew he was our legend and it just took a lot of a humble, peaceful man to lead and to have - at this point in my life, realizing how incredibly much of a hero that he really was.
CORNISH: That's Lynda Carrejo-Labendeira, a survivor of the 1976 Chowchilla kidnapping. She spoke to us from Fresno, California. Ed Ray was the bus driver credited with guiding Labendeira and 25 other children to safety after being kidnapped and buried alive. Ray died late last week at the age of 91. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.