The Dairyland Union School bus from which 26 elementary school children and their bus driver were kidnapped near Chowchilla, California, July 16th 1976. The empty bus, camouflaged with foliage, was found abandoned. (Photo by UPI/Bettmann/Getty Images)
How a 1976 mass kidnapping changed how the world sees childhood trauma
04:44 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: CNN Films’ chilling crime documentary “Chowchilla” premieres Sunday, December 3, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

CNN  — 

One sunny afternoon in July 1976, 26 children and their bus driver vanished on the ride home from school in Chowchilla, California, a close-knit farming town of 5,000 nestled in the San Joaquin Valley.

When police found the school bus abandoned in a ditch a few hours later, they realized that something was amiss.

At 3:54 p.m., three armed men — their faces masked with pantyhose — had cornered the bus on a lonely road and taken the children and their bus driver, Ed Ray, hostage. Held at gunpoint, they were split up, loaded into two vans and driven 11 hours to an abandoned rock quarry over a hundred miles away.

There, the kidnappers forced Ray and the children into a trailer buried deep underground. Leaving the hostages in the dark with a few mattresses, they piled dirt on top and sealed the kids inside a makeshift subterranean prison.

The kidnappers planned to ransom the Chowchilla kids, all between the ages of 5 and 14 years old, for $5 million.

But after 16 hours, Ray and two of the older boys pried the roof open and helped the other 24 crawl out. Police brought them to a prison, where medical experts gave the all-clear: The kids were a little shaken up, doctors thought, but aside from a few bruises and some minor urinary tract problems because they’d been holding in urine, they’d managed to survive without injury.

FILE - In this Friday, July 23, 1976 file photo, the inside of the van in which 26 Chowchilla, Calif., school children and their bus driver were held captive is seen in a Livermore, Calif., quarry . Photographers were not allowed inside the van, but were allowed to shoot pictures after the van doors were opened. Ed Ray, the school bus driver hailed as a hero for helping 26 students escape after three men kidnapped the group and buried the entire bus underground in 1976 died on Thursday, May 17, 2012. He was 91.  (AP Photo/James Palmer)

By then, the Chowchilla kidnapping was an international news sensation, with many headlines claiming that the children had “bounced back.”

Few thought to look at what the kidnapping had done to the children’s mental health. There was little consideration for how its effects might follow them into adulthood. After all, the field of child trauma psychiatry was still in its infancy.

Most experts believed that kids were endlessly resilient, that they’d just “get over” traumatic events. Diagnoses for post-traumatic stress disorder, even for war veterans, didn’t yet exist.

“There was the wish that children would recover, forget about the event and go on with their lives as though it never happened,” said Dr. Spencer Eth, chief of mental health with the Miami VA Healthcare System, who was not involved with the Chowchilla case.

But one doctor decided to take a closer look.

‘100% were having problems’

In the aftermath of the Chowchilla kidnapping, a Los Angeles organization took the kids to Disneyland in an effort to help them recover. The local school offered little in the way of therapy or counseling.

One mental health professional predicted that that only one of the 26 would be emotionally affected by the kidnappings.

But after Dr. Lenore Terr arrived in Chowchilla in November, she found that prediction was dead wrong. Parents were terrified because, five months after the incident, they could still hear their kids screaming in their sleep.

“No parent wanted to admit his kid was the one in 26,” Terr said in CNN Films’ documentary “Chowchilla,” which debuts at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Sunday. “By the time I got out there, 100% were having problems.”

FILE - In this July 20, 1976 file photo, officials remove a truck buried at a rock quarry in Livermore, Calif., in which 26 Chowchilla school children and their bus driver, Ed Ray were held captive. Ray, the school bus driver hailed as a hero for helping 26 students escape after three men kidnapped the group and buried the entire bus underground in 1976 died on Thursday, May 17, 2012. He was 91.  (AP Photo, File)

Then a child psychiatrist training in San Francisco, Terr had long been fascinated by the burgeoning field of child trauma research: what happened, she said, to kids who were “scared to death but hadn’t died.”

When a colleague sent Terr an article about the Chowchilla kidnapping, she realized that it was a natural case study that she’d been waiting nearly a decade to find: a group of kids who all experienced the same traumatic event.

Although they were physically unharmed, all of them – from the youngest to the oldest – were changed forever.

“That kidnapping and that threat of death left an imprint that many of them never fully recovered from,” Eth said. “And we know that now, decades later, that is the usual course of events following catastrophic trauma.”

Terrors and nightmares

Over the next year, Terr would meet with a small group of parents and 23 child survivors who had remained in Chowchilla, interviewing each one for at least an hour. Often, she said, they’d run for two or three.

Every child she talked with carried mental scars from the kidnappings. They manifested differently: For some, their self-esteem plummeted, while others became paranoid and anxious at seeing strange vans.

In fact, 18 months after the kidnapping, one of the older boys shot a BB gun at the driver of an unknown car parked near his house, an unwitting Japanese tourist whose car had broken down.

Night terrors were common among the children, as well. At the time, the Chowchilla parents were told not to enter their kids’ rooms. Doing so, experts thought, would “reward” the behavior of having nightmares.

“When we got home, I thought everything would be OK,” Jennifer Brown Hyde, who was 9 years old during the kidnapping, said in an interview for the film. “I can remember having nightmares immediately. My mom tells me I started sleepwalking, and I would just come into their room in shock, and I would tell them ‘they’re killing me.’ ”

Jeffrey Brown and his sister Jennifer sit at home in their living room as their being interviewed by a newspaper reporter in Chowchilla, Calif., July 21, 1976. The children were kidnapped last Thursday from their school bus. They escaped from the kidnappers along with 26 other children and were returned to their parents early on Saturday.  (AP Photo)