In his four years as a school resource officer, Duane Smith had never had to deal with a situation like the one he faced this week.
The SRO at Red Top Middle School is being heralded as a hero after saving sixth-grader Ethan Hamrick from choking on a water-bottle cap Tuesday during lunch.
Smith, who has only worked for the Bartow County School System since the beginning of the school year, performed the Heimlich maneuver on the 11-year-old and was able to get the cap that was blocking his airway to turn enough to enable him to breathe a little bit before finally getting it dislodged.
"As an SRO, I’ve encountered many different types of real-world situations but not one of this magnitude," Smith, 54, said. "As a trained first responder, I reacted and with a good ending."
Ethan and his friend, Rudra Parmar, were talking and laughing during lunch when Ethan began choking.
"I did not see him swallow the cap, but when I turned toward him, I saw him choking, and he said, 'Go grab the teacher. I think I'm choking,'" Rudra, 11, said. "I went to the teacher table and said, 'Ethan is choking.' Then I went back to the table and got out of the way for the resource officer."
Smith, who had been covering for the SRO at Woodland High that morning but got back to Red Top earlier than anticipated, was nearby and sprang into action after hearing what the sixth-grader said.
"Initially, I thought it was some type of food lodged until someone advised me that it was a cap from a water bottle," the Euharlee resident said. "I didn’t know if I was going to get it or not but was not giving up. Ethan was blue and going limp but was still able to point where it was at as it was moving up because it was deep.
After reviewing the [security] video, I observed approximately 14 abdominal thrusts. I didn’t want to perform a back slap because I didn’t want the foreign object to go any deeper. The entire time, I was talking Ethan through it to keep him calm and just to 'hang on, buddy, I’m not giving up.' Seemed like an eternity, but the entire staff responded greatly. My thoughts were to take care of this young man like I would do to anyone else."
While Smith was working on Ethan, Karlene Boyd, a teacher on the safety team, called for a nurse on the two-way radio, which Assistant Principal Jason Rood also heard.
"It didn't strike me as a panic call so I assumed a student got sick, and [I] started walking down the front hall towards the cafeteria," he said.
But then Rood heard another message that no one would ever want to hear.
"About 20 seconds later, I heard her say on the radio, 'We need a nurse now; he's turning blue,' at which point I broke into a sprint," he said. "I was a bit panicked because I didn't know what exactly had happened, although it was reasonable to conclude that a student was choking."
Entering the cafeteria, Rood saw Smith applying abdominal thrusts to the student to dislodge the blockage.
Smith said he administered the Heimlich "a good minute or so," and it seemed as if the cap went "from flat to sideways, where air was able to pass by the object."
"At this time, he was able to get smaller breaths and color back," he said. "The work still wasn’t over, as I was still working it up to the top of the throat area."
School nurse Jessica Agan and head nurse Annette Lively arrived on the scene, and the three of them worked on him until the cap was dislodged.
Ethan was transported by ambulance to a local hospital, where he was treated and released. He was back at school Thursday.
Afterwards, Smith was "physically and mentally drained," he said.
"What is called an adrenaline dump," he said. "I was really glad he was going to be all right. I’ve been in contact with his family and checking."
That night, Rudra, who's also being called a hero, told his parents about the incident but left out the part he played in it.
"I just told them about the incident, but I just didn't tell them that I had been involved," he said. "I didn't think that it would interest them."
But Rood wasn't going to let the youngster's heroic actions remain a secret from his parents so the AP called them to praise their son’s quick-thinking.
And on Wednesday, Chief Leadership and Learning Officer Clint Terza came to the school to congratulate Smith and Rudra for their heroic and life-saving actions.
"I was very surprised because I didn't think I would get that much attention," Rudra said. "It was very surprising because nothing like that has happened before."
He also said it felt "kinda weird" being called a hero.
"Normally, I don't do much, but I don't feel like a hero," he said. "I've never been called that before."
Smith also isn't accustomed to being called a hero, which is a "very kind word, but I’m the fly-below-the-radar type."
"Not looking for accolades but to be the best first responder I can be for the community and abroad," he said. "I wasn’t even supposed to be there that day, but I’m glad I was in the right place at the right time. I appreciate all of the said comments."
The SRO — who covers Allatoona, Cloverleaf and Emerson elementary schools in addition to his base school — also is in line for more accolades, as his supervisor, Campus Police Chief Randall Burch, sent Superintendent Dr. Phillip Page an email asking that his officer be recognized with a life-saving award for his actions.
"Officer Smith, as most police officers, does not cater to attention; however, sometimes in the performance of one’s duty, it requires attention," Burch said. "I think this is such an occasion. He recognized the severity of the need and did not hesitate to react to that need."
The chief also said Smith, who has been in law enforcement more than 20 years and spent 10 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, "did no less than what I would expect of him or any of our officers."
"When he was made aware of the situation by another student, there was no hesitation to his response," he said. "Although our officers do train for CPR, AED [automated external defibrillator] and responding to someone chocking, it is not within our typical assignment as officers. I am proud of how Officer Smith and others at RTMS responded to an incident that could have ended badly."
Principal Dr. Wes Dickey, who was off-campus at a leadership meeting when the incident occurred, called Smith a "class act in so many ways."
"He treats every Miner at Red Top as if they were his own," he said. "We are blessed to have him in our family."
After watching the security video several hours later, Dickey also commended Rudra for quickly getting help for his friend, the sixth-graders in the cafeteria at the time for remaining calm and allowing staff members to focus on Ethan and his entire staff for knowing what to do and carrying out their duties.
"I feel that the ultimate indicator of a school staff being trained and prepared to handle any situation is when something happens, and you do not know there was an issue until way after the fact," he said. "This is not because they fail to communicate what is going on in the school but because they handle the situation and then carry on with business as usual. My staff knew where I was and that they had handled the situation."
Now that he's had a few days to process what happened, Smith has had a couple of thoughts about the situation.
"There could have been a loss of life that day, but there wasn’t, not on my watch," he said. "The path of life puts us in places and situations that we can’t explain; just remain calm and engage the problem. Trust your training and skills. I actually reacted before I realized I was up and gone, like muscle memory per se."
He also recommends that parents "love your kids and others like there’s no tomorrow" and that everyone learn CPR and first aid.
"Anyone could one day be the first on a scene, which would be that situation's first responder," he said. "Learning basic first aid/life-saving skills could be a plus in someone else’s life. Don’t be afraid to commit."