STANLEY, N.C. – The bodies of two young cousins were recovered Monday from the collapsed rubble of a 24-foot-deep pit that was being dug with a backhoe by a man on his North Carolina property.
Rescuers had been digging for 6-year-old Chloe Jade Arwood and 7-year-old James Levi Caldwell since Sunday, when the girl’s father, Jordan Arwood, called 911. Officials were on the scene near Charlotte within minutes but couldn’t get to the children.
“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.
Sheriff’s deputies later removed firearms and a marijuana plant from the mobile home. The 31-year-old father is a felon who is not allowed to have guns. He was convicted in 2003 for possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell.
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 if permits were issued for the work or plans detailing the project.
The pit is described 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 said the family living in the home has not yet been interviewed but deputies planned to follow up on neighbors’ reports that Arwood was excavating the two-story pit to build 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 girl’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.