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Rescued Alabama boy gets ready to celebrate his 6th birthday

February 05, 2013|By Michael Muskal

A day before his sixth birthday, the boy freed in a dramatic rescue by the FBI played with his toy dinosaur and was surrounded by his reunited with his family in an Alabama hospital on Tuesday, trying to shed the memory of being imprisoned for nearly a week in an underground bunker with a killer who kidnapped him from a school bus.

Officials continued to investigate the scene of the standoff that began Jan. 29 and drew the nation’s attention to Midland City, Ala., a town of about 2,400 people where prayer is an almost daily companion even in normally sedate times.

For the last week, the town has been holding vigils for the safe return of the boy -- identified only as Ethan -- and their prayers were answered Monday afternoon when officials attacked the bunker, freed the boy and left his abductor dead.

On Tuesday, the clouds of worry lifted, leaving a huge residue of relief, residents said.

“If I could, I would do cartwheels all the way down the road,” the boy's great-aunt, Debra Cook, told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Tuesday. “We'd all been walking around in a fog.”

PHOTOS: Boy released from bunker

She said the boy was happy and playing with his old toys, including the dinosaur. “He was having the biggest time,” Cook said.

Meanwhile, evidence teams were at the bunker site, looking for information and checking for explosives.

“It's still actually an ongoing investigation, and we still have a lot of work to do here,” Dale County Sheriff Wally Olson told reporters on Tuesday.

On Monday afternoon, FBI agents attacked the underground shelter, about six feet by eight feet -- about the size of a tornado shelter -- where Ethan had been held prisoner by Jimmy Lee Dykes, a retired truck driver and Navy veteran who cast a threatening shadow over his neighbors and the town. Dykes, 65, had been charged with menacing for firing twice into a pickup truck that was carrying some neighbors. Other neighbors complained Dykes was prone to violence and had once beaten to death a dog that had wandered onto his property.

The day before Dykes was supposed to appear in court to answer the menacing charges, he attacked the school bus and shot to death the driver who tried to protect the more than 20 students on board. Dykes then grabbed Ethan off the bus and took him to the underground shelter the veteran had built on his property up the road.

Officials then tried to outwait Dykes, negotiating with and sending him food, medicine and comfort toys through a 4-inch-wide PVC pipe.

Officials also sent down a snooping device, believed to be some form of video camera, that was used until the FBI determined on Monday afternoon that talks had gone nowhere and that Ethan was in danger.

Officials were still not giving the details of the operation that was used to save Ethan.

“I can't talk about sources, techniques or methods that we used,” Stephen E. Richardson, the special agent in charge of the Mobile, Ala., office told reporters. “But I can tell you the success story is [the boy] is safe.”

“I've been to the hospital,” Richardson told reporters Monday night. “I visited with Ethan. He is doing fine. He's laughing, joking, playing, eating, the things that you would expect a normal 5- to 6-year-old young man to do. He's very brave, he's very lucky,”

Neighbors said they heard a bang and gunshots before the attack, but it was unclear whether those sounds were just diversions to draw Dykes’ attention away from the child.

Nor was it clear exactly how Dykes died, though the speculation was that authorities had shot him during the rescue effort.

“The facts surrounding the incident will be established by a shooting review team” coming from Washington, was all the FBI would say.

After police ended the standoff, one of Dykes’ acquaintances told reporters: “He always said he'd never be taken alive. I knew he'd never come out of there.”

Other residents remembered the man with whom the town sparred, the man who maintained his privacy and threatened anyone -- human or animal -- that seemed to violate it.

“The nightmare is over,” Ronda Wilbur told reporters. Wilbur is the neighbor who said she lost a dog to Dykes’ anger.

Even as the town prepared to celebrate Ethan’s birthday Wednesday, and hoped the boy would be let out of the hospital in time to celebrate with his friends, there was also the memory of the bus driver, who died saving his charges. Charles Albert Poland Jr. was buried Sunday.

“This man was a true hero who was willing to give up his life so others might live,” Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said in a statement after the rescue.

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