An unplanned field trip

Sunday, January 27, 2002

Customers were watching CNN on a Burger King television when news scrolled across the screen that police were searching for a missing school bus.

"That's weird," thought 13-year-old Josh Pletscher, "another bus is missing."

Pletscher's own school bus had left its route four hours earlier with him and a dozen other religious-school students aboard. In what authorities call a kidnapping, their driver, with a loaded rifle behind his seat, said he wanted to show them the nation's capital.

Slurping his milk shake, Pletscher didn't feel like he had been kidnapped. It didn't occur to him that their strange trip was national news or that a massive search might be under way.

As the children ate lunch at a rest stop somewhere in Delaware, a helicopter swept across rural Berks County, Pa., and frantic parents gathered at a municipal building.

Where was Bus No. 22?

20-minute drive

It was 7:30 a.m. on a foggy, rainy Thursday morning when the students, ages 7-15, boarded the bus in Oley, Pa., for their daily 20-minute drive to Berks Christian School.

Their usual driver, 63-year-old Otto Nuss, opened the door.

Nuss, who had worked at a pie factory for 42 years, took the bus job last fall. He was described as conscientious, even putting chains on the bus's tires and shoveling a path for the children. But friends say he also had been treated for psychiatric problems and recently told them he went off his medication.

Thursday morning, instead of heading south on Route 662, Nuss began driving east, away from the school.

A few minutes later, he announced he was taking them on a field trip to Washington, D.C., "to show them something."

Back in his seat, Pletscher wrote "help" on the fogged window, but he was more curious than concerned. Nuss had never acted strangely before and he seemed harmless.

Then a little girl in front spotted something behind Nuss' seat -- a rifle.

Back at school

Robert Becker, administrator of Berks Christian School, got to work at 7:30 a.m. for the customary 15-minute staff prayer session. It was his 48th birthday, and he had worked at the small religious school for 25 years.

Class started at 8:10 sharp. Secretary Eileen Lyle began compiling the attendance list and realized no one from the Oley area had arrived.

She called transportation officials at the Oley Valley School District, who tried to raise Nuss on the bus's two-way radio. When they got no response, they called police.

About 9:45 a.m., transportation coordinator Dan Beacham gave Becker the bad news: "I've driven the route and I can't find them."

Becker began calling parents and spoke briefly with Gov. Mark Schweiker.

'Symbol to bin Laden'

On the bus, news of the rifle quickly spread.

Pletscher and his buddies Chris Mast and Tyler Rudolph, both 15, began moving the youngest children to the back, taking the front seats.

A small girl with blonde hair asked Nuss about the gun.

"Don't touch it," the students say he replied. "It's a symbol to bin Laden. Don't worry, nobody's going to hurt you."

Mast and Pletscher whispered back and forth, formulating a "half-joking, half-serious" plan to take action if Nuss reached for the gun. But Nuss was calm and still buckled in his seat.

Around 10 a.m. they pulled into a restaurant near the Delaware state line and Nuss let the children out to use the restroom. He stayed in his seat until they returned, then went in by himself.

Pletscher and Mast said it never occurred to them to call for help. Pletscher even opened the bus door for Nuss when he returned.

During a stop about an hour later at the Burger King, where Nuss bought the children lunch, another boy tried to call his parents, but the pay phone didn't work.

End of the road

Around 2 p.m., a seemingly lost Nuss pulled into the parking lot of a Family Dollar discount store in Landover Hills, Md., a few miles from Washington. There, he surrendered to an off-duty police officer who was in uniform.

"The bus has been found. All the children are OK," Oley Township Police Chief George Endy announced back in Pennsylvania.

Parents boarded a bus to the Prince George's County police headquarters in Maryland to reunite with their children.

The children shook hands with the officers as they boarded the bus and departed -- this time, with a police escort.

Sixteen hours after they had left Oley, they arrived home.

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