(USA TODAY by Marty Roney and Donna Leger) 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 Tuesday as the child prepared to celebrate his sixth birthday.
"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.
For nearly a week after retired truck driver Jimmy 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.
Dykes stored at least one homemade bomb in the bunker, according to a federal law enforcement officer who was briefed on the matter but not authorized to discuss it publicly.
The FBI negotiated and cajoled through a 6-inch-wide ventilation pipe and delivered toys and food to the child through it, hoping Dykes would let the boy go.
The federal law enforcement official said that 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 the man off-balance near a makeshift ladder that led to the bunker's opening. The official said Dykes fired at least one round before agents fired on him, killing him.
The young hostage, the official said, was believed to be a safe distance from the entrance before four agents entered the bunker.
Ethan emerged physically unhurt, but family members said Tuesday they worried about the mental and emotional toll from the ordeal.
The boy's 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.
"He 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 right."
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.
Charles 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 where people know one another, people felt the family's pain and the sense of relief when the boy was freed.
"It's like we were all held captive," McQueen said.
At 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.
At 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 child.
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, 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.
Republican 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.
Neighbors described him as an anti-social loner who was combative and confrontational. One said Dykes had once beaten his dog to death with a pipe.