It was a seemingly hopeless situation: A 5-year-old boy named Ethan had been snatched off a school bus and was being held hostage by a homicidal kidnapper in an underground bunker wired with explosives. If police did not meet the kidnapper’s demands, he could detonate the bombs, killing himself and little Ethan.
And yet, six days after the kidnapping and just minutes after a close-quarters gun battle, little Ethan emerged from the bunker unscathed.
Now, the details of Ethan’s rescue can be revealed for the first time.
ABC News has obtained exclusive access to the audio recordings of Ethan’s kidnapping, the resulting six-day standoff at the bunker, and the child’s dramatic rescue by an FBI hostage and rescue team. ABC News has spoken exclusively with key members of that team — federal, state and local authorities whose courage and determination saved Ethan’s life.
It is a story of heroes, and it began on a warm Alabama afternoon late last January, when a man named Jimmy Lee Dykes boarded Ethan’s school bus waving a gun and demanding children. A camera on the bus recorded the moment. The voice is raspy, desperate, and chilling:
“I need two boys six to eight years old,” Dykes barked. “Six to eight years old. I mean it. Right now! Right now!”
The bus driver, Charles Poland, knew Dykes, and resisted his demands.
“I can’t do it,” Poland told Dykes.
“Do it!” Dykes screamed.
Poland replied calmly and simply, “No.”
With a gun staring him in the face, Poland said, “Sorry, you’re going to have to shoot me.”
“How about I shoot a kid then,” Dykes said.
“No. It’s my responsibility to keep these kids on the bus. I can’t turn them over to somebody else,” Poland said.
Crouching behind a bus seat, 15-year-old Tre’ Watts called 911. He told the dispatcher there was a man on the bus.
“He’s got a gun,” Watts told her, “and he keeps asking for kids.”
Startled, the dispatcher said, “He’s aiming the gun at the bus driver?!”
“Yes ma’am,” Watts replied.
You can hear the screams of the children and muffled gun shots on the tape.
The dispatcher asked, “Oh my gosh, what’s going on?”
“He just shot Mr. Poland,” Watts said. “I think Mr. Poland is dead.”
Watts was right. Poland died after being shot five times.
Dykes dragged Ethan to an underground bunker on his property just yards from the bus stop.
It was bad, but FBI Special Agent Steve Richardson said it could have been worse if not for the courage of that bus driver.
“He could’ve taken several kids if it were not for the specific actions of Chuck Poland,” Richardson told ABC News.
Richardson also had high praise for Watts, who crouched behind that bus seat and dialed 911 with the gunman only a few feet away.
“I would hope, as a 23-year law enforcement veteran, that I could have performed as good as the 15-year-old young man did when he dialed 911 … unbelievable.”
The dispatcher who Watts spoke to alerted Sheriff Wally Olson.
“My heart just stopped,” he said. “I had to really stop and gather my thoughts.”
Because of Watts’ 911 call, law enforcement was able to respond quickly. The first concern, of course, was for the safety of the child, 5-year-old Ethan. The operation would be all about saving Ethan. And Richardson, the on-scene commander for the FBI, was not optimistic.
“We thought Ethan was going to die,” Richardson told ABC News. “Our negotiators, our behavioral science folks, behavioral analysis folks told us the best you can hope for is a murder-suicide.”
The FBI and police sought to get as much information as they could gather on Dykes.
Neighbors told them that Dykes is known as “Mean Man” because of his anti-government rants, and for carrying a rifle and a shovel. A decorated Navy veteran, Dykes was due in court that very day to face charges of shooting at one of his neighbors.
As for the bunker, Dykes had painstakingly built it himself and had shown it off to neighbors. But no one knew its secret purpose until the standoff.
The bunker was 12 feet deep, and about eight feet long by six feet wide. Dykes fitted it out with electricity, a TV, bunk beds, food, water and other living essentials.
There was a PVC pipe poking up above ground from the bunker, and Dykes told police they could speak to him through the pipe.
Police quickly discovered that Dykes has built in some deadly surprises. There was a bomb in the pipe.
“Well, he had the knowledge and the sophistication to build a device that could not only kill himself and the little boy, but could kill us as first responders and bomb technicians,” FBI bomb tech Al Mattox said.
That gave law enforcement some grudging respect for Dykes’ abilities, and also raised some disturbing questions.
ABC News asked Sheriff Olson about the possibility of additional, hidden bombs on Dykes’ property.
“Absolutely,” Olson said. “I mean, if you got one IED here, you don’t know what lies out there waiting for you.
The law enforcement team felt the best chance of saving Ethan would be negotiating with Dykes.
FBI behavioral scientist Molly Amman was flown down to Alabama to help with the unfolding crisis. She quickly assessed the situation and said it did not look good.
“I was immediately concerned,” Amman said. “He [Dykes] was angry but intelligent and controlled.”
She knew she was dealing with a cold-blooded killer.
“Charles Poland was a friend of his. Maybe his only friend,” Amman said. “He very coldly made a promise … to Mr. Poland: ‘You will do this or I will kill you.’ And he killed him.”
Amman said they were dealing with a kidnapper who lacked “empathy, remorse, regret.”
The hostage team, led by top negotiator Sean Van Slyke, quickly tried to soothe Dykes in direct talks on the phone.
“We wanted to try to come in and calm the situation down, try to calm down his emotions and really just try to stabilize what is a very volatile situation,” Van Slyke said.
“It was complex and detailed and nuanced, and every minute of every hour of every day the complexities grew,” Amman said. “We didn’t know how he was going to react. We didn’t know how Ethan was going to react.”
The negotiating team wouldn’t say how they knew, but they somehow did know that Dykes was watching TV in that bunker. So they carefully tailored their message to protect Ethan when addressing the cameras, with Sheriff Olson saying: “I want to thank Mr. Dykes for taking care of Ethan.”
The strategy seemed to work. Ethan remained calm in the bunker, playing with coloring books and toy cars sent down to keep him occupied.
Meanwhile back in town, the bus driver, Poland, was buried and a community grieved. He was a hero to the community, but to his wife, so much more.
“He was my best friend, my sweetheart,” she said through tears. And she wasn’t surprised he stood up for the children on his bus. “He loved those kids.”
Back in the bunker, Dykes was growing more belligerent by the day. He was angry at the government and disdainful of the police.
In recordings exclusively obtained by ABC News, he began to rant at the negotiating team.
“At the end of this [expletive] day,” Dykes growled, “there’s going to be a determination … as to … just exactly what the hell is going to take place. You just go ahead and send some mother****** down that goddamn funnel over there to their death.
“You’re scared,” he said, taunting the police. “You know goddamn well I’m smarter than most of you [expletive]. You know goddamn well I have the knowledge, I have the experience, I have the ability and I have the balls to show just how goddamn corrupt this system is … just how corrupt you people are.”
It was clear he wanted his story told. And whatever that story was, he believed it would spark anarchy.
“You know goddamn well what I’d say when I go public,” he said. “It’s going to create chaos. It’s going to create riots. … People are going be standing up to this [expletive] dictatorial, incompetent, self-righteous, bunch of sorry bastards in government.”
The negotiating teams believed Dykes saw only one option — killing himself as some sort of grandiose statement.
And there was a bizarre twist.
“His intent was still going to be to commit suicide at the end of it,” Agent Van Slyke said, “and to have a female reporter down there with him, and that she would hold his hand while, in fact, he got his final message out to the world and then committed suicide in her presence.”
By day six, the danger to Ethan was increasing with every second. Agents wouldn’t say how, but they could see and hear some of what Dykes was doing below ground, and it was not comforting. He was handling the weapons and the bomb inside the bunker on a more frequent basis.
“We knew that Jim Dykes had begun to rehearse,” Agent Van Slyke said. “He had begun to prepare.”
There were two scary challenges that seemed to make the situation even more dangerous and complicated. There had been so much rain that there was worry the bunker would collapse on Ethan and Dykes.
Additionally, Dykes allegedly has a diabolical plan for Ethan, according to Richardson.
“Jim Dykes relayed to the negotiators, ‘If anything happens to me, I have told Ethan to pull the trigger,'” Richardson said. “That meant he had told Ethan to detonate the IED, the second IED that was inside the bunker.”
He was teaching Ethan to kill himself. For the FBI and the police, it was decision time.
“We felt an increasing sense of urgency,” Amman said.
Ron Hosko, who headed up the FBI’s criminal division back in Washington, had been consulting with officers on the scene and been regularly briefing FBI Director Robert Mueller and Attorney General Eric Holder. The final decision of what to do would involve a gut-check moment with Mueller.
“Time appeared to be running out,” Hosko said. “Our on-scene commander was on the line. … The director was there and the deputy director. And we briefed the situation.”
There were no good options. With Dykes growing more angry and irrational by the hour, there was agreement that it was then or never. They had to try to take little Ethan out by force.
“It was not a happy time because we thought that our approach posed the great risk of the loss of life down there, potentially to Ethan and to others.”
The tactical team, which has practicing at a mock bunker nearby, was given the green light to assault the real bunker. They would charge into the narrow funnel at the top of the bunker, facing a man armed with guns and bombs.
The men knew they were being asked to carry out a highly dangerous mission, but to a man, they were ready to go.
“I’ll tell you,” Richardson said, “in the command post when the orders were granted to execute the plan … there was silence.”
Commander Kevin Cornelius’ men were the ones about to go into hell to save Ethan. Most had families of their own.
“That certainly isn’t lost on me,” Cornelius said. “The majority of them have children.”
Neil Tew of the Alabama State Police remembered speaking to one of the FBI tactical team members the night before the assault.
“It was very clear to me that he was willing to sacrifice his life if it meant saving Ethan’s,” Tew said, marveling at the bravery.
Then came the moment of truth. As the tactical team went into the bunker, the negotiators held their breath.
“I was feeling so many things,” Amman said. “I was scared. I mean, these are my friends. I didn’t like it. But we were there for a reason and those guys are heroes. Knowing what was waiting for them down there … it’s chilling.”
As the team breached the bunker with a stun grenade, Dykes detonated the perimeter bomb. Smoke began to pour out of the bunker entrance, which was only three feet in diameter, and the tactical team descended into darkness.
“They immediately received gunfire from Mr. Dykes,” Cornelius said. There was an IED in the bunker, as well, and Dykes tried to detonate it. Life and death for Ethan and the team would be determined in seconds.
“It seemed like an eternity,” Richardson said. “I think we were all praying. I vividly remember looking at Kevin [Cornelius] and saying, ‘You got to tell me the child is OK.'”
The silence and tension was finally broken by a beautiful sound: a child crying.
“As a parent, that’s a thumbs up. If he’s crying, he’s breathing,” Richardson said.
But what about the tactical team?
“My next words, Richardson said, “were, ‘Kevin, you’ve got tell me our team’s OK. You’ve got to.'”
The team had executed the assault with precision and skill. Dykes was shot and killed in the confrontation. But no tactical team member sustained serious injury.
“Do you guys believe in miracles?” ABC News asked.
“I believe it was by the grace of God,” Sheriff Olson replied.
“There was certainly divine intervention,” Richardson said.
But with all the joy and of sense relief, the thoughts of law enforcement’s “Team Ethan” returned to one man who was lost in his efforts to save the kids — a man they could not forget: Poland, the school bus driver who sacrificed his life trying to save Ethan.
“How proud are you of him?” ABC News asked his widow, Jan.
“Very proud, very proud,” she said, choking back tears.
She looked off into the soft, Alabama countryside and sighed.
“If I had him now,” she said, “I probably would not let him go for a good, long time.”
See More “Saving Ethan” on “World News with Diane Sawyer” and “20/20” TONIGHT
Story by Pierre Thomas, Jack Date and Jack Cloherty from Good Morning America
To read more about Ethan’s story, check this out.