By Marty Roney and Donna Leinwand Leger, USA TODAY
MIDLAND CITY, Ala. - This rural Alabama town, trapped for nearly a
week in a tense standoff with a killer who snatched a child from a
school bus, embraced a mother's joy as the child prepared to celebrate
his sixth birthday Wednesday.
"For the first time in almost a
week, I woke up this morning to the most beautiful sight ... my sweet
boy. I can't describe how incredible it is to hold him again. Ethan is
safe and back in my arms - and I owe it all to some of the most
compassionate people on Earth," the child's mother wrote in a thank-you
note to the FBI, local sheriff and the state officials who retrieved her
son in a dramatic raid Monday.
"I will never be able to repay those who helped bring Ethan home," she wrote.
nearly a week after retired truck driver Jim Lee Dykes, 65, killed a
school bus driver and took the boy captive in an underground bunker,
police and FBI agents watched him around the clock using high-tech
surveillance equipment. Authorities indicated that they had inserted a
small camera into Dykes' 6-foot-by-8-foot bunker, buried under 4 feet of
soil, and had been watching him throughout the ordeal.
stored at least one homemade bomb in the bunker, according to a federal
law enforcement official who was briefed on the matter but not
authorized to discuss it publicly. Bomb technicians with the FBI, the
Alabama Bureau of Investigation and Dothan police found and deactivated
two explosive devices Tuesday, one found inside the bunker and one in a
6-inch-wide plastic ventilation pipe that negotiators had used to
communicate with Dykes, FBI special agent Jason Pack said. The FBI had
negotiated through the pipe and used it to deliver toys and food to the
Another federal official said a team of FBI agents
breached the suspect's bunker when authorities became concerned about
the man's mental state and his display of a gun.
The official said
agents tried to distract the suspect by dropping percussion devices
into the bunker's hatch, knocking Dykes off-balance near a makeshift
ladder that led to the bunker's opening. The official said Dykes and the
agents engaged in a firefight before agents fired on him, killing him.
young hostage, the official said, was believed to be a safe distance
from the entrance before four agents entered the bunker.
emerged physically unhurt, but family members said Tuesday they worried
about the mental and emotional toll from the ordeal.
mother said the family needed privacy and "time to heal, time to put
this nightmare behind us and time to move forward," she wrote.
Debra Cook, the child's great-aunt, said Ethan was playing normally and seemed happy, but she was worried nonetheless.
has gone through a terrible ordeal, and I don't know if he will ever
get over it," Cook told the Associated Press. "I just want him to be all
While the nation watched, the drama consumed the town of
2,500 people. Churches held nightly vigils. Townspeople delivered food
and drinks to the law enforcement officers and news media gathered down
the dirt road leading to Dykes' property. Many people prayed.
McQueen, an assistant director and transportation manager for a local
senior center, said he drove by the scene several times a day.
"It was always on my mind. I think the entire community was praying for a good ending," he said.
In the close-knit community, people felt the family's pain and relief when the boy was freed.
"It's like we were all held captive," McQueen said.
the Mary Berry Brown Library, where Ethan participated in the summer
reading program, a sign welcomed him home. Assistant librarian Angie
Romero said she had prayed fervently for his rescue.
"You had so many people praying, we knew it would be OK," she said.
Midland City Elementary, Ethan's school, a birthday party is planned
for whenever he returns. "We'd love to have him back tomorrow,"
Principal Phillip Park said. He described Ethan as a friendly, energetic
The crisis began Jan. 29, when police say Dykes, a Navy
veteran, forced his way onto a Dale County school bus and killed bus
driver Charles Poland Jr., 66, who tried to hold Dykes off while 20
children escaped through the back of the bus. Dykes grabbed Ethan and
dragged him from the bus to a bunker he had built on his property.
Rep. Steve Clouse, who represents the Midland City area, has told
reporters that Ethan has Asperger's, an autism-spectrum disorder, and
attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.
Neighbors said they heard two loud explosions and then three or four gunshots as an FBI SWAT team rushed into the tiny bunker.
Few who had encountered Dykes were surprised by the violent end to the confrontation.
described him as an anti-social loner who was combative and
confrontational. One said Dykes had once beaten his dog to death with a