'20/20' co-anchor David Muir on rescued Alabama kidnap victim Ethan: 'This little boy's smile has returned'
It's actually his newest television "home": the ABC newsmagazine "20/20," which he's just started anchoring with Elizabeth Vargas as his predecessor Chris Cuomo moves to CNN. On Friday's (Feb. 8) edition, Muir -- who also continues to anchor the weekend editions of "ABC World News" -- covers the aftermath of the rescue of Ethan, the youngster kidnapped from a school bus in Midland City, Ala., and held captive in an underground bunker for nearly a week.
"I just got back last night, trying to beat the [East Coast winter] storm," Muir tells Zap2It upon returning from two days in Alabama "crashing" his "20/20" report. "I got home around midnight, got a couple hours' sleep, then was up this morning to break what was our 'Good Morning America' exclusive of the first pictures of Ethan since he was rescued."
The kidnapper, Jimmy Lee Dykes, was fatally shot in an FBI raid on the bunker six days after Dykes killed school bus driver Charles Poland Jr. during the abduction. Muir notes Ethan "was taken captive just a few days before his sixth birthday, and one of the things his mother, his family and the entire town were praying for was that he would be out in time for his birthday.
"What we learned is that he had his birthday at the local church, and the FBI team and the SWAT team and the negotiators who pulled him out of that hole were the ones at that party with him ... along with the whole town, and they were kind enough to give us the first pictures of the birthday and the first video of Ethan playing with his new toys. It's proof that this little boy's smile has returned, which is the best ending anyone could have hoped for."
Having been on site on the boy's actual birthday Wednesday, Muir confirms "that town was fixated and focused on one boy, and one boy alone. It's a small town that few of us had ever heard of before, but there was no question when I was there that they all believed their collective prayers had been answered.
"As they now celebrate Ethan," adds Muir, "they're also celebrating the bus driver who tried to put that bus in reverse to get away from the gunman. It's believed that had he not tried to get that bus out of there, the gunman likely would have taken others besides Ethan. There are so many parents who say the quiet hero in all of this is the bus driver we lost."
Muir points out the irony that the only friends Dykes appeared to have in the town were the bus driver he ultimately shot, and the driver's wife. "They were worried that he might not have enough food and that he'd become a little erratic in his behavior, so they began to reach out to him. It's an extraordinarily sad twist to the story that it was his friend that he ended up killing."
Obviously, many reporters were trained on the Alabama story, but Muir held to his own agenda once he arrived there.
"I've been on many breaking stories," he reflects, "and sadly, many of them have had tremendous heartache. This one has a happy ending, Usually, when you land on the ground, you fan out and head to every corner of the community. The first day, I talked to the pastor and his wife who had counseled the mother from the very start; we went from there to the neighbor across the street who described two years of fear living near [Dykes].
"Then we were with the special agent who led the whole operation for the FBI .... and then with [Ethan's] immediate family, talking to us for the first time. The older brother never left his mother's side, was there for the birthday party and took Ethan to Toys 'R' Us. That was his first big trip since the ordeal, other than the party.
"You get on the ground and you just go," Muir reasons, "and everywhere you go, you put together another piece of the puzzle. One thing that '20/20' will allow me to do is report in a longer form and dig a little deeper."
Covering Mitt Romney's presidential campaign helped Muir, a winner of Associated Press and Edward R. Murrow Awards while at Boston's WCVB-TV, adjust to a schedule now heightened by his new "20/20" duties. Efforts such as his popular "Made in America" franchise have expanded the workload for Muir -- who deems weeknight "ABC World News" anchor Diane Sawyer his "mentor" -- and he maintains he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I'm used to this drill where I'm out all week long," he says. "I was at all the primaries and debates, then I'd find myself racing back to New York to anchor the weekend news, then taking that Sunday-night flight back to Ohio or Florida or Virginia. This around-the-clock schedule is something I'm used to."