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Sighs of Relief -- and Today, Outdoor Recess

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The air was damp and cold and hinted of rain yesterday, but across the Washington area it was inhaled with a sense of exhausted relief. After three weeks of killing, hope replaced fear at bus stops, schoolyards, service stations and parking lots.

With word that police had arrested two suspects in the shootings that have claimed 10 lives, simple acts of daily life no longer seemed perilous. People suddenly felt they could walk the street -- and not be targets. Children ecstatically ventured outdoors again to play.

"I feel like a huge stone has fallen from my heart," Tatiana Feoktistov said, still holding tight to 7-year-old Dimitry outside her son's Montgomery County elementary school.

Gas station employees pulled down the huge tarps set up to protect customers from the sniper's rifle sight. At a Shell station on Route 301 in Upper Marlboro, Bill Welch stood outside and welcomed back customers with a delighted grin.

"I'm so absolutely relieved," Welch said. "Everyone had so much fear before. You could see it in their eyes and the way they would crouch down while they were filling up. Now people are taking their time again, stopping to talk to us, just smiling and thanking God it's over. One woman had tears in her eyes."

The most dramatic signal of the return to routine were announcements lifting security restrictions that had kept schoolchildren confined to locked classrooms and halted every athletic activity played on a field. Today, recess is back.

As happy as cabin-fevered students were the besieged drivers of white box trucks and white, ladder-racked cargo vans -- long believed, mistakenly, to be the attacker's getaway vehicle.

Heading south on 16th Street in the District, Lewis Day of Annapolis said he felt like a posting a sign on his box truck. It would have read: "I told you it wasn't me."

Bob Holmes of Warrenton, who drives a white Ford van with a ladder rack, recalled the motorist who had given him such a mean look Wednesday night. "If she had had a gun," he thought, "she would have shot me."

But yesterday, he said: "I got two smiles. It's the first time I've seen smiles since this whole thing started."

The sense of safety grew with the day as authorities asserted ever more strongly that they had substantial evidence against the two suspects. At an evening news conference, the task force investigating the shootings said that a rifle found in the suspects' car had been linked by ballistics tests to most of the killings and that prosecutors would decide today what charges would be filed.

Shortly after, school officials regionwide felt confident enough to declare that after weeks of color-coded lockdown status, today would be: Code Normal.

"Restrictions on outdoor student activities -- including outdoor recess, physical education, open lunch for high school students, and field trips in the Washington area -- have been removed," Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said in a statement. "Outdoor athletic programs will be resumed with modified schedules for practices and competitions."

In quick succession, the District and Prince William, Fairfax and Prince George's counties announced much the same. A few school districts, including Manassas City, Manassas Park and Stafford County schools, decided to maintain lockdown status on students one more day.

"We can't wait to go outside again and not have to worry about anything," said Hayfield High School quarterback Kyle Morgan, a Fairfax County senior who wasn't sure until yesterday that the football season would ever resume. "It's especially tough for the seniors. A lot of people have put time and effort into playing this year, so we're all happy that things are looking good. " 

Looking ahead further, it appeared that Halloween had been pulled back from the brink.

"We've felt like we've been under siege," Sandi Parker of Arlington said as she unloaded cupcakes for her son's birthday celebration. "In the car, my kids were already asking if they can go trick-or-treating now."

Diane Soper expects the costume parade at Hyattsville Elementary School in Prince George's to quickly be back on next week's calendar. Her kindergartner plans to dress up as a skeleton -- with a funny face.

"I'm glad that I won't have to look over my shoulders anymore," she said.

The sniper, or snipers, killed seven men and three women and wounded three others between Oct. 2 and Tuesday. The first victim was James D. Martin, 55, slain in a Wheaton parking lot. The last was Montgomery Ride On bus driver Conrad E. Johnson, 35, shot to death in the doorway of his bus Tuesday morning in Aspen Hill.

Some residents still worried yesterday: What if the police were mistaken? they asked. What if they had the wrong men? What if the trees, or the early morning darkness, still concealed danger? 

Greg Crowe, whose sons Tyler, 10, and Travis, 8, attend Walter J. Mitchell Elementary School in La Plata, watched the law enforcement news conference and parsed every word that Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose uttered. He wanted a definitive signal that the sniper crisis was over.

"It was comforting to hear that the gun was linked to the shootings," Crowe said. But, he noted, "The chief didn't come out and say these are the two guys and these are the only two guys."

Crowe's bottom line? He plans to "stay vigilant."

Varghese George also will maintain caution, for at least several more days. His children attend Strathmore Elementary School in Montgomery's Aspen Hill neighborhood, where three of the shootings -- and two of the killings -- took place.

Hadn't the sniper shot one child -- a 13-year-old grievously wounded outside a Bowie middle school? And only days ago, hadn't a letter from the sniper specifically targeted children? "Get inside! Into the car! Into the car!" George urged his children yesterday, waving them into his blue Jeep Cherokee.

He still will not go shopping or to the mall, he said. His children will not yet be allowed outside to play. And although the heating-and-air-conditioning repairman needs to go to Home Depot for work supplies, he refuses.

"Not for another week," George said warily. "Not until we're sure this is over."

Elsewhere, though, the feeling that the ordeal had ended seemed irresistible.

"I feel totally okay now," said Tommy Martinson, an 11-year-old fingering his hockey stick and whizzing down his Aspen Hill street on rollerblades with his younger brother, Danny. "It's fun to be outside again."

"I am so happy," said Peggy Tierney, whose son, Gabriel, attends a Montgomery County elementary school. She kept the 9-year-old out of school Tuesday and Wednesday. Wednesday night, Gabriel was afraid to shower alone. But yesterday, after the arrests, he danced to and from school.

"It just feels like a burden has been lifted," she said. "It wasn't until this morning that I realized how scared I had been."

In Wheaton, the last few weeks have been drab for high school student Julio Gonzalez, 15. Friends have been kept home from school. A football game was canceled. There's been little action beside home videos and popcorn.

But now, he has big plans for the weekend. His sister might have a Halloween party. He might go to the mall, or the movies.

"I am going to live it up," he said.

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