LUCIA, N.C. — A 13-hour search for two young cousins buried in the collapse of a North Carolina construction site ended around daybreak Monday with the discovery of the bodies.
The body of 6-year-old Chloe Jade Arwood, 6, of Gastonia, N.C., was found about 6 a.m. An hour later, crews discovered the body of 7-year-old James Levi Caldwell, of Stanley, N.C.
They were found under about 24 feet of dirt in an excavated site on Cedarbrook Drive, a gravel road near the Lucia community. It is about 20 miles northwest of Charlotte.
“These were horrific circumstances,” Lincoln County Emergency Management spokesman Dion Burleson said Monday morning.
Lincoln County Sheriff David Carpenter said the two children were playing in the hole late Sunday afternoon while James Caldwell’s father, Jordan, operated a backhoe nearby. The first 911 call came shortly after 5 p.m. from Jordan Caldwell, who authorities said saw the cave-in.
“The children were in a dug-out portion of the hole,” Carpenter said.
Initial reports said the excavated area was to be the basement of a planned house, but authorities said Monday morning they are not sure exactly what was planned for the site. They said the hole measured 20 by 24 feet and was 24 feet deep. The two children were at the bottom, near a wall that collapsed.
“There were several thousand pounds of dirt on top of them,” Carpenter said.
First-responders at the scene dug frantically in an effort to rescue the children. Lincoln County called on help from three other counties, including a specially trained urban rescue squad from the Charlotte Fire Department.
“We worked as if they were alive,” Burleson said.
More than 100 people were involved in the effort, he said.
But by 9:30 p.m., Burleson announced that the rescue effort had turned into a recovery.
“It’s a tragic scene,” Charlotte fire Capt. Rob Brisley said.
As darkness fell, firefighters and other personnel set up powerful portable floodlights to illuminate the grim site. Neighbors clustered on Hines Circle, a paved road near Cedarbrook Court, while officials jockeyed large rescue trucks and equipment down the small road.
At one point late Sunday, a structural engineer was called in, because officials were worried about further collapses at the site.
Television video taken from over the scene in the early-morning hours Monday showed about 10 men working in the hole, using shovels to remove thin layers of dirt. The first was placed on tarpaulins and removed from the pit. Officials said they were not able to use heavy equipment in the hole, because the children’s bodies were there.
Family members of the children stood near the excavated site throughout the night, watching the effort.
Crews from the American Red Cross also were at the scene, providing support for recovery workers and the families.
Burleson said the search and discovery of the bodies was traumatic for everyone involved.
“Many of us are parents,” he said. “That added to the stress. But these guys kept their composure and worked very hard.”
Burleson said the sheriff’s office will handle the investigation into exactly what happened. That will include determining if there were proper permits for work at the site, he said Monday morning.
“We have not determined what the father was building,” he said. “This is a time of grieving for the family. Our investigation will go forward, but we also are allowing the family to deal with what has happened here.”
Staff writers Davie Hinshaw, Kathleen Purvis, Mark Washburn and Roland Wilkerson and WCNC-TV contributed to this report.
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