WIMAUMA — He ran full speed at the loaded school bus Wednesday morning as it drove north on U.S. 301 toward Shields Middle School.
Traffic whizzed by on the southbound lane of the two-lane highway, so Cindy Fulwood stopped her bus at U.S. 301 and Ruth Morris Road.
"It was so scary," the 16-year veteran bus driver said. "I just kept thinking about what the transportation department says, 'Safety for the children. Safety for you.' "
She said the man, whom deputies later identified as Barry Christopher Martin, 27, of Bradenton, tried to stick his hand through the window of her stopped bus before she slammed it shut.
Then he jumped on the hood, she said.
"He climbed up on the roof and opened the roof hatch and jumped down onto the bus," Fulwood recalled. "He kept saying, 'Take me down the street,' and telling the kids to sit down. But they didn't."
Instead, the 44 Shields Middle School students — riders on Fulwood's bus for three years — exited out the rear of the bus and walked through a ditch until they were clear of the bus and busy U.S. 301.
"I'm so proud of them," Fulwood said.
They had practiced bus evacuation twice annually since she was assigned the route, but this was the first time the children put it into action.
"Later they said, 'We wanted to stay on the bus and help you,' " she said tearfully. "But I told them they did the exact right thing by getting off the bus."
Fulwood said she did her best to keep Martin's attention on her, but he kicked open her front door to get off the bus and ran to board another school bus right behind hers.
She called 911 on a cell phone and relayed Martin's every move.
Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies said he forced his way through the front door of the second bus, but the driver demanded that he leave. Martin got off the bus, walked around to the front and climbed to the roof from the hood.
Then he jumped to the ground, opened a door and crawled through the bus on his hands and knees toward the front of the bus.
Martin kept crawling, and exited through the front door, where deputies were waiting.
He was arrested and faces charges of burglary of an occupied structure, disrupting a school function and violating probation from a previous theft charge.
Martin was wearing an ankle monitor that was issued by Manatee County, said Debbie Carter, a sheriff's spokeswoman.
He was in prison for nine months for charges of burglary of an unoccupied structure and grand theft of a motor vehicle before being released in August.
No children were hurt when he boarded the bus.
When Fulwood was sure the children were safe at school, she sat on the steps of another driver's school bus and bawled.
"These children are my babies, and I don't want anything bad ever to happen to them," she said.
Sitting in their car outside the entrance to Shields Middle School on Thursday afternoon, Caroline and Floyd Middleton said they heard about the incident from their daughter Wednesday night.
"I thought it wasn't true since we didn't hear anything on the news," Caroline Middleton said.
A message sent out to parents by the principal helped fill in the gaps, Caroline Middleton explained.
"But I still wondered whether there were bits that we weren't hearing," she said.
Rachel O'Steen and Jimmy Katchur had no idea about what happened Wednesday. They said they never got a message or a note from the school, and O'Steen's daughter never mentioned the incident.
"I don't understand how a guy gets on a bus like that," Jimmy Katchur said. "That's crazy."
Sitting in the back of the car, Rayah O'Steen said administrators didn't formally tell students what happened.
"I just heard that someone jumped on a bus and that kids were taken off," the seventh-grader said. "Then today, the principal called kids on the bus to the cafeteria."
Fulwood said district transportation officials came on to her bus to give her students candy bars and praised their quick thinking and courage.
"We also had an ice cream party for them," she said.
The 48-year-old Tampa native said she's had one child go through Hillsborough County schools, and she has a 2-year-old granddaughter who will be entering the system in a few years.
"I just want parents to trust the bus drivers," she said. "We're always going to do what's best, because we really care about your kids and their safety."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or firstname.lastname@example.org.