By Tamara Lush, Melissa Nelson-Gabriel and Jay Reeves, AP
MIDLAND CITY, Alabama — A community prepared Sunday to bury a beloved bus driver who was shot to death trying to protect the children on his bus, including a 5-year-old boy allegedly taken hostage by the shooter, who is now in a standoff with police entering its sixth day.
Charles Albert Poland Jr., 66, who was known around the town of Newton as Chuck, was described by people in his hometown as a humble hero. Hundreds of people attended a viewing service for Poland on Saturday evening. His funeral was set for Sunday afternoon.
“I believe that if he had to do it all over again tomorrow, he would,” said Poland’s sister-in-law, Lavern Skipper, earlier Saturday. “He would do it for those children.”
Authorities said Jim Lee Dykes boarded a stopped school bus filled with 21 children Tuesday afternoon and demanded two boys between 6 and 8 years old. When Poland tried to block his way, the gunman shot him several times and took one 5-year-old boy — who police say remains in an underground bunker with Dykes.
Sheriff Wally Olson said in a briefing with reporters Saturday that Dykes has told them he has blankets and an electric heater in the bunker on his property. Authorities have set up a command post at a church and have been communicating with Dykes through a ventilation pipe to the underground bunker.
Olson also said Dykes has allowed police to deliver coloring books, medication and toys for the boy. “I want to thank him for taking care of our boy,” Olson said. “That’s very important.”
The shooting and abduction took place in Midland City, a small town near Dothan, Alabama, in the state’s southeastern corner.
Newton is about three miles (5 kilometers) away, a small hamlet with fewer than 2,000 residents. It sits amid cotton farms and rolling hills sprinkled with red earth; most of the residents commute to Dothan or to a nearby Army post.
William Lisenby, a school bus driver who also taught Sunday School with Poland, was flanked by other area bus drivers as he arrived at Saturday night’s viewing service for his friend at a local funeral home.
Lisenby spoke in Biblical terms when referring to Poland.
“If you’ll notice the similarities there, of what Chuck did was the same thing that Jesus Christ did. These children, even though they were not Chuck’s, he laid down his life to defend those children. My hat’s off to him for that.”
“He was a bus driver just like we are,” Lisenby said. “But for the grace of God that could have been us.”
Others spoke of the loss of a good man, and their hope that the little boy being held captive is alive and well and will be released soon.
“The community is real concerned,” said Fred McNab, mayor of Pinckard, Alabama. “You can tell by the food that’s been carried over there to the church. It’s just devastating. We want it to come to a resolution. We want to save that little child.”
Earlier Saturday, local residents remembered Poland as a friendly, giving person.
“He’s probably the nicest guy you’ll ever meet,” said Lonnie Daniels, the 69-year-old owner of the NAPA Auto Parts store, one of three establishments in town that was open Saturday.