The boy was in trouble.
During lunch period last Thursday at Sierra Intermediate School, the games and carefree banter of about 850 students suddenly stopped. A hush fell over the schoolyard.
Marvin Cipriano, 11, had been eating a piece of chicken. A piece of it lodged in his throat. He choked. His face turned blue.
Horrified students watched as the boy desperately gasped for air. Suddenly a big, burly man, Mike Ritenhour, 40, the school's groundskeeper, strode into the midst of the students. Ritenhour stood behind Marvin, put his arms around the boy's waist, and squeezed.
Three more times, Ritenhour made the sharp, squeezing motion, called the Heimlich maneuver. The fourth time worked. Marvin spit out the chicken and started breathing normally.
Principal Dan Salcedo said he vividly recalls the rescue scene.
"I was coming back from the office during the lunch period, and all of a sudden I saw a group of kids standing on the tables and looking down," Salcedo said. "My first reaction was, 'What is going on?' As I approached the lunch tables, I saw what the kids were watching. The groundskeeper had just finished the Heimlich maneuver on this boy.
"The kids were watching the rescue in awe. Everything was quiet--that was the interesting thing."
Added Assistant Principal Laura Rogers: "The kids who were watching were really moved by it."
On Tuesday, school officials, students and the rescued boy praised the lifesaving action of their groundskeeper. "We're going to publicly honor him at a school assembly on Thursday," the principal said.
Ritenhour, a 5-foot-11, 235-pound former Marine, seemed embarrassed by the attention and accolades.
But in an interview, he proudly acknowledged that he had taught himself the Heimlich maneuver about three years ago. "I've taught myself things like that because I always wanted to be a nurse," Ritenhour said.
Santa Ana Unified School District officials said Ritenhour, who has been a groundskeeper at Sierra Intermediate for five years, performed the rescue calmly and with gentle care.
"Mike (Ritenhour) kept telling the boy, 'You're all right. You're going to be OK,' " Rogers recalled.
Marvin, a sixth-grader who said he wants to be a policeman, recalled the incident in an interview.
"I'd been eating some chicken for lunch," he said. "It got stuck in my throat. I couldn't breathe, and I couldn't swallow. I saw Mike then. He dropped his walkie-talkie and ran to me. He got hold of me and squeezed me, and then the food came out, and I could breathe."
The boy rested briefly at the nurse's office, then returned to class.
"Mike is a nice guy," Marvin said. "I told him, 'Mike! Thanks!"
Ritenhour, for his part, said he was glad he could help. He said he has three grandchildren, and he hopes that someone will help them in any similar trouble. "I'm a lucky man," he said. "I love my job here."