Above ground and safe, Ethan turns 6

By Lateef Mungin and Martin Savidge, CNN

MIDLAND CITY, Alabama (CNN) — As far as birthday milestones go, 6 isn’t an age that gets the kind of enthusiastic treatment that parents reserve for when a child turns 1 or comes of age at 12.

But Ethan turned 6 on Wednesday after surviving an unimaginable ordeal, and Midland City, Alabama, wanted to make sure it was a birthday worth remembering.

The city had planned a vigil at Napier Field Town Hall Tuesday night, which turned into a celebration. There, children signed an oversized card. “Happy 6th Birthday Ethan,” it said.

More than 1,200 other cards came in from across the nation, said Philip Parker, principal of Midland City Elementary.

The community started an online campaign to raise $7,000 to send the boy and his family to Disney World.

“It grew wings overnight,” said Anna Owen, one of the organizers.

Owen said more than $8,200 was raised by Wednesday afternoon.

“It makes me proud. People just totally want to help. From London to Dothan, it’s been overwhelming,” she said.

The city is planning a massive birthday party and is trying to find a place large enough to hold it.

While the party wasn’t ready Wednesday, many are leaning toward a high school football stadium.

Such is the joy in this small town of 2,300 knowing that Ethan won’t have to waste his birthday wish hoping to be freed from a dark, underground chamber.

He was freed Monday after being hostage underground for six days.

Seeing her son again, said Ethan’s mother, was “the most beautiful sight.”

But even as the youngster blows out his candles and the south Alabama town plans a celebration, agents will continue combing through the crime scene at Private Road 1539.

The bombs

Two bombs were discovered Tuesday inside that bunker where an FBI team rescued the 5-year-old boy from his kidnaper, Jimmy Lee Dykes, authorities said.

One was in the bunker and another was in the PVC pipe that Dykes sometimes used to communicate with the authorities during the 6-day hostage standoff, the FBI said.

Knowing Dykes had already shot and killed bus driver Charles Poland, and dragged the boy into the underground bunker, authorities feverishly tried to negotiate with him.

Before storming the bunker, negotiators had tried many avenues with no success.

Dykes was contentious with authorities from the beginning and throughout the standoff, but the conversations deteriorated rapidly toward the end.

Law enforcement officers were able to see what was going on inside the bunker with a camera they slipped into the hideout, a law enforcement official said.

FBI sources said surveillance drones constantly monitored the situation.

The FBI hostage rescue team practiced on a nearby mockup of the bunker until Dykes’ declining mental state forced it to storm the bunker, law enforcement sources said.

The assault Monday afternoon came from the top of the bunker, a law enforcement source said, and left Dykes with multiple gunshot wounds.

The discovery of the bombs later seemed to further illustrate the danger Ethan faced.

Dale County Sheriff Wally Olson said the bunker will be destroyed once all evidence has been collected.

“This has been a terrible tragedy for this community and I’d hate to see this happen again. No one should see this place,” he said.

The reunion

Ethan was reunited with his mother, who has not been publicly named, at a hospital Tuesday. The grateful mother released a statement describing the reunion.

“I can’t describe how incredible it is to hold him again,” she said. “Ethan is safe and back in my arms — and I owe it all to some of the most compassionate people on Earth.”

His classmates can’t wait to see him, said Parker, the principal.

“We are just looking forward to the time that he can come back in and we can wrap our arms around him and tell him we love him,” he said.

Another person grateful was Aaron Poland, whose father was killed trying to protect Ethan and 21 other children on the school bus.

Ethan’s made him feel like his dad’s final route was finished, Aaron Poland said.

“Ethan was home with his mom. Safe,” he said.

“My dad’s key job was to make sure that every child was delivered safely to their parents.”

CNN’s Martin Savidge reported from Midland City; Lateef Mungin reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Marylynn Ryan, Victor Blackwell, Carol Cratty, Vivian Kuo, Rich Phillips, Larry Shaughnessy, Barbara Starr, Michael Pearson, Steve Almasy and HLN law enforcement analyst Mike Brooks also contributed to this report.

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