SIDNEY — Early Tuesday morning, when a fifth-grade girl called out from the crowd of 35 children aboard his school bus, driver Nathan Philbrick thought the girl might be about to share a frivolous thought or to make a minor complaint.

When he looked at her face in the mirror, however, he could tell it was something far more serious.

Still, he had no idea he was about to use his Heimlich maneuver training to save the life of a child who was choking.

The girl pointed to a little boy who was sitting across the aisle from her.

Seconds before, the two children had boarded the bus together from a day care site at the top of Reynolds Hill.

Now, before the bus had even reached the bottom of the hill, the boy had his hands at his own throat and was crying without sound, tears on his cheeks and unable to breathe, Philbrick said.

Philbrick stopped the bus.

Before that moment, it seemed like an ordinary day to Philbrick, a 47-year-old farmer from Sidney. He got out of bed about 4:30 in the morning, took care of his animals and drank some coffee before saying goodbye to his wife, Angela, who also drives a school bus for the district. Each spouse got behind the wheel of one of the two buses parked in their driveway on Shepherd Road, and they headed off in opposite directions for what they thought would be a typical morning of picking up children, still quiet and groggy from the previous night’s sleep.

The Philbricks are two of about 50 bus drivers who take children every day to and from the district’s schools in Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney, a complicated daily operation overseen by the district’s transportation director, Lennie Goff.

Goff said that in his 26 years with the transportation department, he’s never known a bus driver to be caught in the kind of crisis that Philbrick faced Tuesday.

Despite that, Goff said, he has always been insistent that his drivers be trained to respond in a crisis. Every two years, all drivers dutifully attend a safety training course, during which they learn how to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation, first-aid procedures and the Heimlich maneuver, which involves standing behind a choking person and reaching around them to apply abdominal thrusts.

Goff said some of the drivers, Philbrick included, have been reluctant to complete the training; but that each one goes through the program, during which they practice the maneuver on a series of lifelike dummies, built to duplicate the varying sizes of school-age children.

Philbrick, 47, remembers that when he last took the training a year ago, he practiced on a dummy that was about the same size as the boy, who Philbrick thinks is in first grade.

On Tuesday morning, he said, he didn’t think about his training, which he had completed six or seven times during his 14 years with the district.

Instead, he said, he went on autopilot.

Without conscious thought, he said, he grabbed the young boy from his seat and administered the Heimlich maneuver. Almost immediately, a small round butterscotch candy shot out of the boy’s mouth and flew six or eight feet down the bus aisle.

When the boy began to cry, audibly and loudly, Philbrick said he knew that the crisis, which had begun just moments before, was over.

Philbrick credits the district’s training with giving him the right technique. Without the training, he said, he would have tried to do something, but he wouldn’t have known how to do it properly.

With the tearful boy seated beside him at the front of the bus, Philbrick completed the two remaining stops on his run, then handed the boy, who reportedly suffered no injuries, off to the school principal.

On Wednesday, Goff said news of the event had spread throughout the school community, which he hopes will lead to more compliance with school safety rules.

In the past, he said, he’s had to argue to get students and athletic staff members to see the importance of the district’s policy of not eating on the bus.

The issue isn’t the cleanliness of the bus, he said, but fear of a scenario in which a student, seated alone on the way home from an athletic event, chokes to death, unnoticed in a dark and noisy vehicle.

Philbrick and the fifth-grade girl who sounded the alarm will be honored Tuesday afternoon during a special James H. Bean School assembly.

Gary Smith, district superintendent, declined to release the names of the children involved.

Smith said the frightening incident underscores the importance of professional development, a budget category that includes safety training and that has come under fire as an unnecessary luxury for the district in recent tight budget years.

Smith said bus drivers are required to complete 20 hours of training each year, which includes first-aid training and things such as how to inspect vehicles before and after each trip.

While there have been no instances of children choking in recent years, Smith said, medical events such as seizures or diabetes-induced problems happen on buses and in classrooms occasionally.

Goff said more training is needed, not less.

“We did all that training for years, and as far as I know, it was never used in all those years,” he said. “All of a sudden, it paid off. Instead of this, we could have been dealing with a family that was grieving for a lost little one. It’s worth all the training in the world.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
mhhetling@centralmaine.com