STANLEY, N.C. — Rescuers on Monday recovered the bodies of two young cousins buried when a wall of dirt fell on them while they were playing in a hole at a home construction site in North Carolina.
The bodies of 6-year-old Chloe Jade Arwood and 7-year-old James Levi Caldwell were pulled from a 24-foot-deep pit in the town of Stanley, outside of Charlotte.
“We’ve been working a horrific scene here,” Lincoln County Emergency Services spokesman Dion Burleson told reporters gathered near the rural site on a two-lane road dotted with modular and mobile homes.
Crews had been searching for the children since Sunday afternoon, when the girl’s father Jordan Arwood called 911 to report the collapse. Officials were on the scene within minutes but couldn’t get to the children.
The father had been digging with a backhoe on the site earlier in the day, Sheriff David Carpenter said. He would not say what was being built or if Arwood was doing it alone or had professional help. He did say authorities didn’t know of any permits that had been issued for the work or plans detailing the project.
Burleson described the pit as 20 feet by 20 feet with a sloped entrance leading down to the 24-foot bottom. The children were at the bottom of the pit retrieving a child-sized pickaxe when the walls fell in on them, Carpenter said.
He said his deputies would continue to investigate what happened.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Carpenter later said deputies had not yet interviewed the family living in the home but planned to follow up on neighbors’ reports that Arwood was excavating the two-story pit to build some sort of a protective bunker.
“They were so distraught we hope to be able to talk to them today and come up with some information on that,” Carpenter said. “It’s a very large hole. It would look to be something like that, but I don’t know. … We’re going to find out exactly what his intentions were.”
He said deputies would be speaking with county planning and zoning officials about any potential building code violations at the site.
Andrew Bryant, a planner with the Lincoln County Planning & Inspections Department, said no permits had been issued.
Neighbor Bradley Jones said the children often played in the pit when the boy’s father was working there. Jones, who said he works in construction, said there was no structure to support the pit’s tall dirt walls and that he questioned the man about the hole’s depth.
“I told Chelsea not to go in,” Jones said, referring to advice he gave his teenage daughter, who babysat the children. “It was dangerous. There was nothing to reinforce those walls.”
Associated Press Writer Michael Biesecker in Raleigh contributed to this report.