Town grieves for bus driver murdered trying to protect children

A grieving community is preparing to bury a driver murdered trying to protect children on his bus, as the police stand-off with an Alabama man accused of the killing and holding a five-year-old boy hostage continued.

Charles Poland, 66, known locally as Chuck, was described by people in his home town of Newton as a humble hero and hundreds attended services for him on last night.

Mourners praised Mr Poland for laying down his life for the children on the bus on Tuesday afternoon. His funeral will be held later today.

"I believe that if he had to do it all over again tomorrow, he would," Mr Poland's sister-in-law Lavern Skipper said. "He would do it for those children."

Authorities say retired lorry driver Jim Dykes, 65, boarded a school bus filled with 21 children and demanded two boys between six and eight years old.

When Mr Poland tried to block his way, the gunman shot him several times and took a five-year-old boy - who police say remains in an underground bunker with Dykes.

Dale County sheriff Wally Olson said Dykes told officers he has blankets and an electric heater in the bunker. Authorities have been communicating with him through a ventilation pipe.

Sheriff Olson said Dykes had allowed police to deliver colouring books, medication and toys for the boy.

"I want to thank him for taking care of our boy," the sheriff said. "That's very important."

The shooting and abduction took place in Midland City, a small town near Dothan, Alabama, in the state's south-eastern corner.

Newton is about three miles away, a small hamlet with fewer than 2,000 residents, sitting amid cotton farms and rolling hills sprinkled with red earth. Most of the residents commute to Dothan or to a nearby army post.

Nearly everyone in Newton is planning to attend Mr Poland's visitation or funeral.

"He's probably the nicest guy you'll ever meet," said Lonnie Daniels, 69, who owns the NAPA Auto Parts store, one of three establishments in town that was open yesterday.

Mr Daniels last saw his friend on Tuesday morning, when Mr Poland agreed to buy a car from him. Mr Poland was due to return after work to pay for the car.

Mr Daniels said Mr Poland, originally from Idaho, had been married to his wife for 43 years. The couple lived in Newton for decades in a small mobile home, and Mr Poland enjoyed gardening and clearing brush from his property.

"I knew that he was always there if I needed," said Mr Daniels, adding that Poland was an excellent mechanic with an array of tools that he lent to people in town.

Neighbours and friends said Mr Poland performed various acts of kindness for people in town, from fixing someone's tractor to tilling the garden of a neighbour who had a heart attack.

"You don't owe me anything," he once told a recipient of his good deed. "You're my neighbour."

Mr Poland's son Aaron said he was not surprised by his father's act to protect the children on the bus.

"He considered them his children," he said, choking back tears. "And I know that's the reason why my dad took those shots, for his children, just like he would do for me and my sister."

As Newton grieves, residents are praying for the safe return of the boy being held hostage - and wondering about the man behind the abduction.

"We'd all like to get to him and say: 'What's wrong with you?'," said Gerald Harden, owner of a gun shop in Newton.

Mr Harden said he had checked his records to see whether Dykes had bought a firearm there, but records showed he had not.

In Midland City, police were mostly keeping silent about their talks with Dykes, a Vietnam-era veteran known as Jimmy to his neighbours.

Some people described him as a menacing figure with anti-government views and one of his neighbours said he spent two or three months building the bunker, which he covered with sand and dirt.

Michael Creel said Dykes put the plastic pipe underground from the bunker to the end of his driveway so he could hear if anyone drove up to his gate.

He said he believed Dykes' motive for the boy's kidnapping was to publicise his political beliefs.

"I believe he wants to rant and rave about politics and government," Mr Creel said. "He's very concerned about his property."

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