What was billed as a celebration for Ethan also honored the school bus driver who gave his life so that the boy and almost two dozen other children would live.
“He saved the life of every child on that bus,” Pastor Dewayne Watson of Mt. Sinai Holiness Tabernacle said of Charles Albert Poland Jr. “He will always be remembered as a hero. He’s the bus driver that I would want my child riding with.”
Dozens of people gathered outside Napier Field Town Hall Tuesday night for what was going to be a vigil for the safe return of a 5-year-old who was held hostage in a bunker for nearly a week by the man who got on the Dale County bus and shot the 66-year-old driver.
Instead it was a celebration of the boy’s release after the FBI staged a daring rescue Monday afternoon to free the kindergartner from his armed captor.
Ethan was held for six days by 65-year-old Jimmy Lee Dykes in an underground bunker Dykes had built on his land. Dykes was killed in the raid, but Ethan emerged physically unharmed.
Watson thanked Dale County Sheriff Wally Olson, the FBI and law enforcement officers of all levels who worked to free the boy, who is celebrating his sixth birthday today.
“All of these were tirelessly doing what they could,” Watson said. “But let us never forget that while all the mentioned forces strategized the plan of action on the ground, God had already placed angels in the bunker underground.”
Napier Field Mayor Greg Ballard said cards have been coming in from across the country to mark Ethan’s birthday, which he might have been celebrating as a captive had he not been freed on Monday.
The vigil was Sambora Vaughan’s idea, but after Ethan was freed it was made into a celebration. Vaughan said people should do as the FBI has asked and respect his family’s privacy as Ethan copes with he ordeal of seeing two men killed in less than a week.
“This little boy has been through a lot,” Midland City Elementary School Principal Phillip Parker said. “And we’re going to be ready when he steps off – if it’s off of a bus or it’s out of a car – to wrap our arms around him like God would.”
Parker said Dykes didn’t know what he was getting when he took Ethan.
“He (Ethan) never met a stranger,” Parker said. “I guarantee you he fought the whole time, and he’s going to recover from this and we’re going to move forward.”
Millions in the nation prayed for the boy’s release, and now people and groups are wanting to do things not only for Ethan and his family but for the Poland family as well.
Novia Brackin and Barbara Fowler, who are known for doing benefits in the area, were contacted by members of the local biker community who wanted to do something special for Ethan’s family.
“We were thinking maybe he should rest at Disney (World),” Fowler said. “That way they can get away from here, they can heal a little bit, have a little fun, a little laughter.”
Fowler said they also want to do something for the Poland family.
“Those two families have been greatly affected by this, much more so than any of us,” Fowler said. “It has been really tough on this whole community, but nothing like these two families.”
The Rev. Mike Griggs of Magnolia Free Will Baptist Church said Tuesday’s gathering was held to celebrate an answered prayer.
“It was local people that gathered together, and they bonded and they prayed to a God that was able to deliver him (Ethan),” Griggs said.
“I want to give thanks tonight that we have the opportunity to still find people like Charles Poland,” Griggs said. “It would be a sad night if we did not mention him tonight.”
Poland gave the greatest sacrifice any could give, Griggs said.
“There were 20 other kids there that might not have made it home to momma and daddy had it not been for his heroics,” Griggs said.
More to celebrate:
A Miracle Celebration Program will be held Friday at 6:30 p.m. at the Dothan Miracle Field Complex. Blue balloons will be released to mark Ethan’s return to his family and friends. White balloons will honor bus driver Charles Poland. A mailbox will be available to drop off birthday cards for Ethan.