FRESNO, Calif. -- The nation called Ed Ray a hero when he led a terrified group of children to safety after they were kidnapped aboard their school bus and held underground for ransom in the summer of 1976.
But the unassuming bus driver from a dusty farm town in Central California never saw himself that way, even after news of the infamous Chowchilla kidnapping grabbed headlines and inspired a TV movie.
As for the children he saved, Ray became their lifelong friend until he died Thursday at 91 from complications of cirrhosis of the liver.
"I remember him making me feel safe," said Jodi Medrano, who was 10 when three men hijacked the school bus and stashed the group in a hot, stuffy storage van buried in a rock quarry.
Inside the van, Medrano held a flashlight as the bus driver worked with older students to stack mattresses, force an opening and remove the dirt covering the van so they could escape. She never left Ray's side during the ordeal.
"I remember he actually got onto me because I swore," Medrano said. "Mr. Ray said, 'you knock that off.' I thought, whenever we get home I will be in so much trouble. That's when I knew I was going home, because he made me have that hope."
Medrano, who now runs a hair salon in Chowchilla, where the hijacking occurred, said she kept in touch with Ray throughout her life. Many of the other children went on to live in Chowchilla as adults and regularly visited the aging bus driver.
"Mr. Ray was a very quiet, strong, humble man. He has a very special place in my heart and I loved him very much," Medrano said, crying.
The dramatic ordeal and Ray's role in it left an indelible mark on Chowchilla, population 5,000, where Ray and most of the children lived.
Residents were terrorized when the bus vanished, and their fears were fueled by other crimes in the state -- the Charles Manson killings, the serial killing of 26 farmworkers, the Patty Hearst kidnapping and the Zodiac serial killer who remained at large.
Five hours after the hijacking, police found the bus, hidden in a drainage slough. It was empty, with no trace of blood or any other clues.
A day later, Ray's family and frantic parents got word: the bus driver and children, ages 5 to 14, were safe.
Ray, the only adult on board, later recounted how he stopped the bus on that steamy July day to see if people in a broken-down van needed help. Three armed, masked men forced Ray and the children into two vans.
They meandered for hours before stopping at a quarry 100 miles to the north in Livermore. The kidnappers sealed the children and Ray inside the storage van and covered it with 3 feet of dirt as part of their plan to demand $5 million ransom.
While the kidnappers slept, Ray and two older children dug themselves to safety after 16 hours underground.
Frederick N. Woods and brothers James and Richard Schoenfeld, members of well-to-do San Francisco Peninsula families, were convicted in the kidnapping and sentenced to life in prison. None of the three have been paroled.
The trio, who were in their mid-20s at the time of the kidnapping, said they had fallen into debt because of a failed real estate deal and hatched the elaborate plan involving the bus as a way to rid themselves of financial worry.
Family members said Ray collected newspaper clippings about the kidnapping and bought the school bus he drove in 1976 for $500 as a memento and because he didn't want it to go to scrap iron.