SARANAC — The bus started weaving some, swerving onto the shoulder of Route 3.
It moved across the center line, avoiding oncoming cars only because they got off the road altogether.
As it passed Saranac Central at Picketts Corners — instead of delivering the 25 students for the school day — somebody called out, "We've got to stop the bus!"
"So I just go up and ask (the driver) if she's OK," said sophomore Jennifer Cowling, who was sitting three seats back.
The driver didn't respond.
'TURN THE KEY!'
Allan LeFevre was at the wheel of a Verizon bucket truck behind Saranac Central bus 196 on Friday morning; he and Ken Gallo watched with growing alarm as the bus swerved in increasing arcs across the road.
They guessed the driver was perhaps ill, and began driving up alongside, aiming to hit the bus if necessary to get it off the road.
"That was my next move," LeFevre said.
Though he didn't know it, Cowling took action first, grabbing the wheel.
"I pushed on the brake pedal, turned the bus off," she said.
LeFevre and Gallo, who had called 911, saw the bus get back in its lane and slow down some. They pulled up next to the open driver's window and saw the driver was unresponsive and that Cowling was steering.
She had seen the bucket truck rolling alongside.
"They were trying to get the bus driver's attention," she said.
And they were hollering to Cowling, telling her to turn the key.
Meanwhile, a woman driving on Route 3 pulled over by another Saranac Central bus and told the driver about the erratic vehicle not far away.
She gave the wrong bus number, said Saranac Central School Transportation Supervisor Ron Packwood, but the driver quickly figured out where to find the bus in trouble and radioed the school to report where it was.
By then, it had slowed enough for Gallo to climb aboard and give Cowling a hand.
An ambulance arrived, and its personnel ministered to the driver.
"And they were very quick about it," Cowling said.
She found herself shaking a bit; she said the other kids "were just standing up, staring.
"They were all strangely calm."
Another bus arrived, and Verizon technician Victor LaPointe, who'd been driving behind the bucket truck, helped the kids off the first bus and up the steps of its replacement.
And the techs flagged traffic until Saranac Volunteer Fire Department arrived.
The students went to school; the Verizon employees continued on to work in Lake Placid.
"None of us want to be recognized for anything," said LeFevre, who only reluctantly shared their role in Friday morning's incident.
The bus driver, whose name was not released by the school due to privacy reasons, was taken to CVPH Medical Center by ambulance.
Packwood didn't share what her illness was but said she was doing well.
"That's good to know," LeFevre said upon hearing the news.
Cowling and her mother, Donna Ashline, were relieved, too.
The bus driver was very distressed over what had happened, Packwood said.
He also said her record is impeccable.
"This girl is a 36-year, professional bus driver," he said.
Ashline was pretty surprised when the school called to tell her about the events of Friday morning.
Her daughter, she said, "is a very smart girl, and I'm glad she was able to act" quickly to help out.
The school day was more or less normal, Cowling said.
Except that lots of people called her a hero.
"(And) I had a couple of people pulling me out of class and thanking me," she said.
One of them was Superintendent of Schools Kenneth Cringle.
"She certainly helped in avoiding a very dangerous situation," he said. "I just hope that I, as an adult, could have acted as quickly as this young lady."
"There could have been a major catastrophe," Packwood said, enormously relieved.
After school on Friday, Cowling shrugged off the praise.
"I didn't even think; I kinda just went with it," she said.
The 17-year-old doesn't have a driver's license; she has yet to get a driver's permit.
"She's been practicing some of the online tests," her mother said.
Would Friday's experience speed up that process?
Ashline didn't want to push the matter.
"I'll wait until she's ready."
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