- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 27, 2002

Customers were watching CNN on a television set in a Burger King 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."
Josh's own school bus had left its route four hours earlier with him and a dozen other 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 milkshake, Josh 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? Had it been in an accident? Was it hijacked? Were the children still alive?
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.
Mr. 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, Mr. Nuss began driving east, away from the school.
A few minutes later, he announced he was taking them on a field trip to Washington "to show them something."
Back in his seat, Josh wrote "help" on the fogged window, but he was more curious than concerned. Mr. Nuss had never acted strangely before and he seemed harmless.
Then a little girl in front spotted something behind Mr. Nuss' seat a rifle.
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.
Classes 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 Mr. Nuss on the bus' two-way radio. When they got no response, they called police.
Transportation coordinator Dan Beacham headed out to look for the children. If the bus had crashed, it would be easy to spot in the gently rolling countryside.
About 9:45 a.m., he gave Mr. Becker the bad news: "I've driven the route and I can't find them."
Mr. Becker began calling parents and spoke briefly with Gov. Mark Schweiker.
While parents rushed to the Oley Township municipal building, Berks Christian School's 200 students were called to the chapel and told the bus was missing. Children cried and began praying.
On the bus, news of the rifle quickly spread.
Josh and his buddies Chris Mast and Tyler Rudolph, both 15, began moving the youngest children to the back, taking the front seats themselves.
A small girl with blonde bobbed hair asked Mr. 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."
Chris and Josh whispered back and forth, formulating a "half-joking, half-serious" plan to take action if Mr. Nuss reached for the gun. But Mr. Nuss was calm and still buckled in his seat.
Around 10 a.m. they pulled into an Old Country Buffet restaurant near the Delaware state line and Mr. Nuss let the children out to use the restroom. He stayed in his seat until they returned, then went in by himself.
Josh and Chris said it never occurred to them to call for help. Josh even opened the bus door for Mr. Nuss when he returned.
During a stop about an hour later at the Burger King, where Mr. Nuss bought the children lunch, another boy tried to call his parents, but the pay phone didn't work.
Back on the road, Josh and Chris were enjoying themselves, pumping their fists to get truckers to honk their horns. In the back, the younger children sang songs and played games.
Around 2 p.m., a seemingly lost Mr. Nuss pulled into the parking lot of a Family Dollar discount store in Landover Hills. There, he surrendered to an off-duty police officer who was in uniform.
Mr. Nuss was being held on federal kidnapping charges yesterday, and a judge order he undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
During a hearing Friday, when asked if he understood the case against him, Mr. Nuss replied: "I'm not totally involved in it."


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