JUST AFTER LUNCH ON OCT. 3, Dawn Little found a message on her office answering machine. It was from Ken Russell, principal of her kids' school, Bellerive Elementary, in the St. Louis suburb of Creve Coeur, Mo. "Call as soon as you can," Russell told her. "I want to tell you something good that Larry has done."

Delighted that the news was good—10-year-old Larry had been depressed since his father had died three weeks before—Little was still unprepared for Russell's report: Larry had single-handedly stopped a runaway school bus and very possibly saved the lives of 19 children. "I've never, never in my life had a surprise like this," she says.

It all began at 7:15 a.m. in St. Louis when Little, 30, waved goodbye to her two youngest children—Larry Champagne and his brother Jerrick, 9, both of whom participate in the city's voluntary school-desegregation program. Thirty-five minutes into their 20-mile bus trip, the routine ride suddenly became anything but. Driver Ernestine Blackman, 42, who doctors say suffered a major stroke, abruptly fell to the floor. Bus three, with 19 children ages 6 to 11 aboard, went careening across three crowded westbound lanes of U.S. Highway 40. Some of the kids started sobbing. "I thought we were going to die," says Larry. "The bus started swaying side to side and hit the guardrail twice. That made everyone fall and hit the window. I thought we were going to crash."

Not if Larry could help it. Seeing Blackman lying helpless in the stairwell, the intrepid fifth grader sprang from his seat and grabbed the steering wheel. "I ran up and just stomped on the brake," says Larry. The bus came to a halt, and Larry called to three of his friends—Angelo McKnight, 11, Angelo's brother Gregory, 9, and Imani Butler, 9—to tend to Blackman. "I needed help from some of the big kids," he says. A truck rear-ended the bus, but did no real damage.

Alerted by a motorist with a cellular phone, ambulances soon arrived. The children were teary but not hysterical. Five who had suffered minor injuries were taken to three St. Louis hospitals, and a replacement bus carried the rest to Bellerive school. The kids arrived rattled but extremely grateful. "When we got off, everybody said, 'Thank you, Larry, for saving our lives,' " says Gregory McKnight.

Champagne wasn't in the mood to play hero. "I asked him, 'Do you want to talk about what happened?' " says fifth-grade teacher Judy Hetterscheidt, who describes Larry as "a student who wants to do his best" and who's "really well-liked" in class. "I want to chill out," said Larry. Hetterscheidt had an inkling why. Three weeks before the accident, Larry's father, handyman Lawrence Champagne Jr., 30, was stabbed to death by an acquaintance outside his St. Louis apartment. Lawrence Champagne and Dawn Little divorced in 1987, but Larry remained close to his father and asked his teacher not to tell his classmates about the death—though by the time of the accident, several kids on the bus had learned of it from Jerrick. Some, like Crystal Wright, 10, figured Larry's loss helped prompt his bravery. "I guess he was thinking about his father," she says. "He didn't want anyone else to die."

At first, Larry seemed taken aback by his sudden acclaim. "He didn't really realize what the to-do was about," says Dawn, who works as a Southwestern Bell service rep. In fact, at first he shied away from reporters outside the home he shares with his mother, Jerrick, sister Clementé, 11, stepfather Jesse Little, 30, and stepbrother Eric Little, 11. But now he seems to have adjusted to fame. Since the incident on Highway 40, Larry has chatted with Katie Couric on Today, flown to L.A. to do a spot with Jay Leno and was offered a scholarship by a Denver automotive school.

No one is prouder of Larry than his grandfather Lawrence Champagne Sr., 51, an electrical engineer who taught young Larry where to find a brake pedal in the first place. Even after his son and Larry's mother split, "the kids were always in and out of here," says Larry's grandmother Gloria, 51. Often, Larry was with his grandfather, tinkering with a 1978 Chevy pickup. That bond has helped sustain the whole family through the killing of Lawrence Jr. "When you have a death like this, you do feel bad," says Lawrence Sr. "But if we look at the broader picture, we're still happy. We've been blessed because his son possibly saved many other lives. That makes the loss easier to accept."

Young Larry, it seems, would agree. "You know, my dad was really the hero and I'm not," Larry told principal Ken Russell. "[He] helped other people, always tried to do the right thing. I think my dad would be proud of me."

PATRICK ROGERS
MARY HARRISON in St. Louis

  • Contributors:
  • Mary Harrison.