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)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)
FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — 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 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 school bus and stashed the group in a hot, stuffy storage van 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.
"I remember he actually got onto me because I swore," said Medrano, now 46. "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, where Ray and most of the children lived. The city then had a population of 5,000.
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, clogging phone lines. Search parties and airplanes scoured the area.
"We sat at home for a long time knowing nothing," said Ray's son Glen Ray, who was in his 30s at the time and had rushed home from Arizona.
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.
At the time, the Chowchilla Police Department was swamped with calls, and the kidnappers decided to take a nap before calling in their demand.
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, that's all he could think about," Ray's son, Glen Ray, said. His father loved kids and they were his life, the son said.
Ray, who grew corn and alfalfa and raised dairy cows, never boasted about his role in the rescue, his granddaughter Robyn Gomes said.
"The community will remember him as a hero, but it's not at all how he saw himself," she said. "He was a remarkable man. If you met him, you loved him. He was that kind of guy."
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 has 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 kidnapping 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.
"He parked it in the barn and he'd go out and start it once in a while," Glen Ray said.
He kept the bus for several years then gave it to an old equipment museum in Le Grande, where it's still available for public viewing.
Ray is survived by his wife, Odessa, his two sons, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. A funeral services will be held Tuesday at Chowchilla Cemetery.
Follow Gosia Wozniacka at http://www.twitter.com/GosiaWozniacka .