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 make a minor complaint.

When he looked at her face in the mirror, he could tell it was something far more serious. Still, he had no idea he was about to use his training for the Heimlich maneuver 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 earlier, the children had boarded the bus together from a day-care site at the top of Reynolds Hill.

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, unable to breathe, Philbrick said. He stopped the bus.

The school district’s transportation director, Lennie 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 attend a safety training course in which they learn how to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation, first aid 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 each one goes through it, practicing on a series of lifelike dummies, built to replicate 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 he helped, 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 in his 14 years with the district.

Without conscious thought, he said, he grabbed the 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 6 or 8 feet down the bus aisle.

When the boy began to cry, loudly, Philbrick said he knew that the crisis was over.

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

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

On Wednesday, Goff said news of the event had spread throughout the school community. He hopes it 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 is the 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 bus.


Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at:

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.