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Alabama kidnapping ordeal recalls Chowchilla bus incident

Victims in the 1976 event, in which gunmen seized a school bus full of children and demanded ransom, compare their abduction to that of 5-year-old Ethan in Alabama.

February 06, 2013|By Marisa Gerber, Los Angeles Times
  • Police and parents inspect a Dairyland Union school bus in July 1976 after it was found near Chowchilla, Calif., with all 26 students and the driver missing.
Police and parents inspect a Dairyland Union school bus in July 1976 after… (Associated Press )

As a kidnapped 5-year-old boy cried for his mother from an underground bunker in Alabama last week, Larry Park, Jodi Heffington Medrano and others relived a decades-old California drama with uncanny similarities: Chowchilla, when gunmen snatched a school bus full of children and buried them alive in a ransom attempt.

Park, now 43, hadn't forgotten the hell that started on a hot school bus ride when he was 6, nor the men who buried him, the bus driver and 25 other children in a moving van. But he was finally in a good place. He found Jesus and forgave his kidnappers. His anger no longer crescendoed into violence. And his therapist told him he could finally stop counseling.

But as he watched the weeklong saga unfold in Alabama, he knew the pain awaiting the child, Ethan, whom the FBI rescued Monday.

"Ethan, I'm sure, is going to have nightmares," Park said.

His own ordeal began in Chowchilla, Calif., in July 1976, on the second to last day of summer school. Bus driver Ed Ray pulled over to help a white van with its hood up. Seconds later, a trio of gunmen with pantyhose pulled over their faces stormed the bus and barked commands at the children.

Kidnappers forced Ray and the children into two vans and drove for hours, without explanation or bathroom breaks. Many of the kids got carsick. Others cried. Some started singing, "This Little Light of Mine," but stopped. It didn't feel right, Park said. When they arrived at a rock quarry in Livermore hours later, the vans reeked of urine and vomit.

The kidnappers asked each child for his or her name and an item they could use to extract ransom. Park handed over his swimming towel and pronounced his name "Lawry Pok." He struggled with the letter "r."

Ray and the children were forced into a partially buried moving van, which the gunmen covered with more dirt.

Ethan's ordeal also began on a school bus and resulted in underground captivity. He was pulled from his bus last week by a gunman who shot and killed the driver, taking the boy to an underground bunker. His captor, however, was killed in Monday's FBI raid.

Like Ethan, Park has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD, which made the subterranean ordeal even more excruciating. Perhaps the most chilling echo: learning that Ethan had cried for his mother.

"I just wanted my mom," Park recalled. "I just wanted my mom and I couldn't figure out why [his parents] didn't come for me."

Ray and the Chowchilla children took turns holding a flashlight while a couple of the older boys climbed atop mattresses the group had stacked. After 16 hours in the buried van, they forced open the hatch and all escaped.

Park's reunion with his parents was sweet, but then the nightmares began. He became angry, his dad got overprotective, and his mom sequestered herself in books as an escape. He knows now that they desperately needed therapy.

Alan Steinberg, associate director of the UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, said that for Ethan, witnessing the fatal shooting of his bus driver and his kidnapper would compound his trauma and could trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Children do, in fact, experience PTSD, just like combat victims," Steinberg said.

It's hard to say how Ethan's future will compare to Chowchilla survivors in their adult lives.

"Is it worse if you're by yourself or with other people under the same life threat who are freaking out?" Steinberg said. "I don't know."

The three Chowchilla gunmen were convicted of multiple counts of kidnapping for ransom and sentenced to life in prison. One was released on parole in June; the others remain behind bars.

Heffington Medrano was 10 when she handed her abductors an art project as her personal item during the ransom attempt.

She said she had followed Ethan's case, exchanging Facebook updates and prayers with other Chowchilla victims.

They were collectively relieved Tuesday at the news that Ethan spent the day before his sixth birthday enjoying his family and his favorite toys.

Now that she knows Ethan is safe, Heffington Medrano wonders whether there's anything she can do to help his family or the other students aboard the bus who were threatened by the kidnapper.

"I don't know if I could help them or not," she said. "But you just feel like, we survived and we wonder, did we survive to help these guys?"

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