FRESNO, Calif. -- The nation called Ed Ray a hero when he led a group of terrified 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 26 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 bus and stashed the group in a hot, stuffy storage van buried under 3 feet of dirt in a rock quarry.
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 after 16 hours underground. She never left Ray's side during the ordeal.
"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.
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.
As word of the disappearance spread, hundreds of reporters from around the country swarmed the town. Search parties and airplanes scoured the area.
Five hours after the hijacking, police found the bus, empty. 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 to see if people in a broken-down van needed help. Three armed, masked men forced Ray and the children into two vans.
At the time, the Chowchilla Police Department was swamped with calls, and the kidnappers decided to take a nap before calling in their demand for $5 million.
While they slept, Ray and two older children dug themselves to safety.
"He told me that he felt it was his responsibility to get the kids back home to their parents safely," Ray's son, Glen Ray, said. "That's all he could think about."