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115-mile bus detour for students

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OLEY, Pa. — Thirteen children were back home after a school bus driver with a loaded rifle took them on an odyssey that ended in another state when he turned himself in.

The students returned home with their parents early today, more than 16 hours after their bus veered off its route and went to Landover Hills, Md., 115 miles away. The children were unhurt but the parents had had the fright of their lives.

Driver Otto Nuss, 63, was taken to jail Thursday night after surrendering to an off-duty officer. He was scheduled to appear in court today on federal kidnapping charges after meeting with a public defender.

The motive of the journey was not clear; a friend said Nuss had been treated for psychiatric problems in the past and recently went off his medication.

Several of the Berks Christian School students said Nuss told them they were going on a field trip to Washington, D.C. They said they played games, helped Nuss plan the route, and felt at ease when he stopped the bus to treat them to lunch at a Burger King.

"He never touched anybody," said eighth-grader Josh Pletscher, 13. "We were having fun. We were having cars honk their horns."

The school held an assembly and religious service today to celebrate the safe return of the children. About 200 students came in, including at least three of the 13, school administrator Robert Becker said.

"I was glad to actually see them and talk to them," said Becker, who spent the morning counting heads.

The bus had picked up the students, ages 7 through 15, at a high school in Oley at about 7:30 a.m. Thursday for their daily six-mile trip to the religious school in Birdsboro.

When the bus failed to reach its destination, residents, a police helicopter and cruisers frantically searched the route in rainy, foggy weather.

Craig Ziemer, the father of one of the children, 11-year-old fifth-grader Ashley Ziemer, called the six hours when the bus was missing "the most horrible thing I've ever experienced."

The students on the bus said the driver ignored a dispatcher's efforts to contact him by radio, according to an FBI affidavit from special agent Thomas D. Neeson. Nuss told authorities some of the students wanted to return home, but he told them they could not, the affidavit said.

"He said he wanted to show them Washington, D.C.," FBI spokesman Peter Gulotta Jr. said.

The journey ended with the bus parked outside a Family Dollar discount store in Landover Hills, just a few miles from Washington. Nuss entered the store and approached off-duty Officer Milton Chabla, who was wearing his uniform, police said.

Nuss told Chabla he had left a gun on the bus, police said. He said he had taken the children against their will and wanted to turn himself in. "He wanted the kids to be OK and let their parents know they were OK," Chabla said.

Gulotta said the semiautomatic rifle was found behind the driver's seat, covered by a coat.