STANLEY, N.C. - A 13-hour long search came to an end Monday morning when two children's bodies were recovered after being buried in a collapse.
Neighbors said 7-year-old James Caldwell and his 6-year-old cousin, Chloe Arwood, were helping family members lay the groundwork for a new home Sunday evening when 24 feet of clay from an earthen wall fell on them.
Chloe's father called 911.
“Get a crane, get a bulldozer, get anything you can, please,” he said during the 911 call.
He knew the gravity of the situation as he struggled to try to find a way to rescue the children.
“I've got to dig,” he said. “I've got to listen for my baby.”
The dispatcher asked him not to dig, for the same reason rescuers took their time during the search and dug by hand.
“When you are dealing with that much weight on a child, you do not put heavy machinery in there, on top of there, to try to get them out. You have to work by hand,” said Dion Burleson with the Denver Fire Department.
Rescuers worked throughout the night, digging for 12 hours before finding the children’s bodies.
Not only was it devastating for their families, but it was also a draining ordeal for the rescuers.
“Many of us are parents of children of our own and that adds to the stress and the emotion to our responders,” Burleson said.
Two neighbors Eyewitness News spoke to were nearby when the wall of clay fell on the two children.
“When I looked down on the hole, it was an empty hole,” neighbor Danny Ferrell said. “You couldn't see anybody."
The children were near the base of the wall when it fell.
“I just knew it was too late,” Ferrell said.
His neighbor and friend Chad Wanek has cuts on his hands from trying to save the children.
“(I) ran down the hole and just kept trying to tear through the dirt with my bare hands and just kept digging and digging and digging,” Wanek said.
He said the day before the collapse, his 8-year-old daughter was playing with the two cousins near the wall. He warned her to stay away from the site.
At first, he thought she was buried under the clay with them.
“The only thing I could think of was just saving her,” Wanek said. “It was heartbreaking."
Once he realized his daughter was safe, he kept digging until the rescue crews arrived. He was still there when they found the children 12 hours later.
“When a young child goes like that, it hurts,” Wanek said.
The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office said it was notified by the Lincoln County Building and Grounds Division that building permits had not been issued for the location where the incident happened.
Officials said they interviewed the man who was digging the pit, and removed several firearms and a marijuana plant from his home. He is a convicted felon and is not permitted to own firearms, officials said.
The investigation is ongoing, officials said.