MIDLAND CITY, Alabama (Reuters) - He played with a toy dinosaur and laughed with family and friends. His school district planned a birthday celebration, and his classmates returned to kindergarten.
After nearly a week in captivity, the 5-year-old Alabama boy who was snatched from his school bus and held in an underground bunker began the process of recovering from an ordeal that captured national attention amid heightened U.S. concerns about gun violence and school safety.
“For the first time in almost a week, I woke up this morning to the most beautiful sight ... my sweet boy,” the child’s mother said in a statement released by the FBI on Tuesday. “I can’t describe how incredible it is to hold him again.”
The standoff with Jimmy Lee Dykes, 65, began last week after he gunned down a school bus driver and kidnapped the boy. It ended on Monday with Dykes’ death and the safe recovery of the kindergarten student, identified only as Ethan.
FBI agents stormed the homemade bunker and shot and killed Dykes after a hidden camera showed him wielding a gun and looking agitated, law enforcement sources said.
The boy, who turns 6 on Wednesday, was treated at a hospital but appeared physically unharmed, law enforcement officials said.
Authorities and family members who visited him said he was laughing, eating and playing with toys. The child’s mother, who was not named, thanked those who helped rescue her son and comforted his loved ones during the standoff.
“My family and I ask that you respect our privacy and give us a little time - time to heal, time to put this nightmare behind us, time to move forward,” she said.
Authorities have released few details about their extended negotiations with Dykes. FBI Special Agent Steve Richardson said on Monday that talks had deteriorated in the 24 hours ahead of the rescue, and Dykes was seen holding a gun.
NPR reported that officials monitored Dykes with a camera they had managed to get into the underground shelter on Dykes’ property near Midland City, in southeastern Alabama.
Dykes initially attended to the boy’s needs and seemed to sleep peacefully, but later appeared agitated and ignored the child, sources told NPR, which cited unnamed law enforcement officials.
To prepare for the rescue, FBI agents trained using a mock bunker officials had created near the site, according to ABC News, citing unnamed sources.
A local law enforcement source told Reuters that a stun or flash grenade was detonated before agents shot and killed Dykes.
TEACHER: ‘I WILL GIVE HIM A BIG HUG’
The end of the hostage situation brought a collective sigh of relief in the rural corner of Alabama where it played out. Several local schools reopened on Tuesday for the first time since the shooting a week ago, and officials said counselors were on hand to help students.
“What a great sense of relief,” said Suzanne Dasinger, Ethan’s kindergarten teacher at Midland City Elementary. “When he comes back, I will give him a big hug and say ‘Let’s get busy.'”
The drama came against the backdrop of a heated debate about gun violence and school safety across the United States since the December shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school.
A White House official said President Barack Obama called FBI Director Robert Mueller on Monday evening “to compliment him for the role federal law enforcement officers played in resolving the hostage situation in Alabama.”
Dykes, a retired trucker who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War era, had been due to appear in court last Wednesday to face a menacing charge involving one of his neighbors.
On the eve of his trial before a judge, Dykes boarded a school bus carrying more than 20 children home and demanded that the driver let a student off the bus, according to authorities.
When the driver, Charles Albert Poland, 66, refused, Dykes shot him four times with a 9 mm handgun, killing Poland, and fled with the boy, officials said. Dykes later claimed to have booby-trapped his property, and authorities were still searching for explosives before clearing the scene, an FBI spokesman said.
On Tuesday, the other students who had been on Poland’s route were accompanied by a pastor and a state transportation official as they rode a new bus to school, educators said.
School administrators said they were working on plans for a party to honor Poland’s memory and celebrate Ethan’s birthday.
“We have a long way to go on this healing process,” said Donny Bynum, superintendent of Dale County Schools. “We will process it out and learn from it to prevent it from ever happening again.”
Additional reporting by Tom Brown and Roberta Rampton; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Leslie Adler, Cynthia Johnston, Martin Golan and Phil Berlowitz