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Alabama bunker hostage boy's family is 'holding on by a thread'

An Alabama state senator and a representative who have been in touch with the family of the 5-year-old boy being held hostage in a bunker discuss the case.

The family of an Alabama boy abducted from his school bus and being held in an underground bunker is "holding on by a thread," a state representative said Thursday as the hostage drama stretched into a third day.

The boy, a 5-year-old named Ethan, is receiving necessary medication and appears to be calm and doing well, a state senator said.

A source close to the investigation told NBC News on Thursday that authorities had also managed to get crayons and coloring books to the boy.

The child was kidnapped Tuesday after school when a man stormed the bus and presented a note demanding that two children be handed over to him, the source said. When the driver refused, the man shot and killed him and grabbed the boy, authorities said. Twenty-one other children on the bus were able to escape.


On Wednesday, a source close to the investigation identified the suspected gunman to NBC News as Jimmy Lee Dykes, 65, of Midland City, describing him as a loner and a survivalist who "does not trust the government" and holds "anti-American views."

Hostage negotiators were still talking to the man in his bunker through a PVC pipe, but after a second night ended with no sign of progress in negotiations, Alabama state Rep. Steve Clouse told the TODAY show: "We are all just hoping this can come to a safe end."

He said the boy's family was "holding on by a thread."

The Dothan Eagle quoted a neighbor, Michael Creel, as describing the bunker as a "homemade bomb shelter," roughly 4 feet wide, 6 feet long and 8 feet deep and covered by several feet of sand. James Arrington, police chief in neighboring  Pinckard, where the bus was assaulted, told reporters Thursday that Dykes had been known to stay in it for as long as eight days.

Alabama state Sen. Harri Anne Smith told TODAY that negotiators had delivered medication that the boy needed, provided by his mother, and that he was believed to be calm and doing well. His mother has "taken comfort in that," she said.

In the remote town of Midland City, just north of the Alabama-Florida state line, people prayed for the boy's safe release.

"Right now, the whole town seems like they're just in a mourning stage," convenience store manager Carl McKenzie told NBC station WSFA of Montgomery. "I would go take that child's place if I could, just to get him out of danger."

Bus driver praised
Authorities offered no hints to the gunman's motive. Clouse said the kidnapping appeared random.

Hostage negotiators have been talking to Jimmy Lee Dykes, 65, who is alleged to have abducted a kindergartner from his school bus Tuesday. NBC's Gabe Gutierrez reports.

Read more: Hostage suspect was loner, missed court appearance

The gunman burst onto the yellow school bus about 3:40 p.m. Tuesday, authorities said. When the driver, Charles Albert Poland Jr., 66, tried to stop him from taking children off the bus, he was shot and killed. The source close to the investigation told NBC News that four spent bullets were found at the scene.

Read more: Slain bus driver remembered as hero

The county school system said 21 students had made it off the bus safely and praised Poland as a fallen hero. But the gunman made off with the one child, possibly because the boy fainted during the siege, according to WSFA.

Clouse said gratitude was being expressed for Poland's actions, telling TODAY: "He started the day as a bus driver and ended it a hero."

Linda Williams, a county tax clerk whose cousin was married to Poland, described him to NBC News as "a good Christian man" who was active in church.

"It says in the Bible the meek will inherit the Earth," brother-in-law Melvin Skipper told the Eagle. "He was the meekest man I knew."

Poland's neighbor Hilburn Benton told the newspaper that Poland refused to accept payment for work on his yard two years ago. "He told me, "You're my friend and you're my neighbor. I'm not charging you a dime,'" Benton recalled.

Suspect faced previous charges
Dykes had been due in court Wednesday morning to face a misdemeanor charge of menacing James E. Davis Jr., a neighbor who accused him of firing a pistol at his truck Dec. 10. The Montgomery Advertiser reported that the dispute was over a makeshift speed bump.

Dale County Board of Education

Charles Albert Poland Jr., who had driven a school bus for Dale County, Ala., since 2009, was shot and killed.

Rhonda Wilbur told WSFA that Dykes was a longtime source of concern in the neighborhood because "he has been like a time bomb waiting for him to go off." Wilbur told reporters that Dykes had beaten her dog to death with a lead pipe.

In addition to the county sheriff's department, the FBI and a SWAT team were on the scene. A woman answering the phone at the Midland City Police Department said the FBI had taken over and that local police were no longer involved. Authorities ordered people living nearby to leave during the standoff.

Schools in Dale County and the nearby city of Ozark were closed for the rest of the week. Dale County schools said counselors would be available to help students, including those who were on the bus.

M. Alex Johnson, Gabe Gutierrez, Isolde Raftery and Alastair Jamieson of NBC News contributed to this report.

The Dothan Eagle via AP

A man boarded this stopped school bus in the town of Midland City, Ala., on Tuesday afternoon and shot the driver when he refused to let a child off the bus. The bus driver died.