Search for three-year-old boy ends successfully, thanks to teamwork

Night search for missing boy
Friday, January 25, 2019 - 4:18pm

CAYTON - Hundreds of searchers from local, state and federal agencies along with public volunteers spent more than two days looking for three-year-old Casey Hathaway in Craven County before he was successfully located Thursday night.   The boy had been playing near his grandmother’s house when he wandered into the woods and did not return – spending two nights outdoors in freezing and rainy weather.

Among those working the search were NC Emergency Management employees Alex Auten and Hendrix Valenzuela from the NCEM Eastern Branch Office.

Inside mobile command postThe search began Tuesday afternoon, and local authorities in Craven County began asking for additional assistance on Tuesday evening.  Auten and Valenzuela, along with NCEM Area Coordinator Melissa Greene, helped recruit trained search and rescue experts from Eastern NC to staff the incident management team that organized and led the search effort as it grew larger.

“We tried to bring in people who we knew were our good search and rescue leaders,” said Auten, “then we worked to organize a thorough and methodical search.”   Auten served as the planning section chief on the incident management team and Valenzuela worked as the logistics section chief. 

As weather conditions got more treacherous with heavy rain on Thursday, incident commanders made the decision to limit the search to professionally trained searchers, instead of the large number of public volunteers that had assisted on Wednesday.

It was a tip from a woman walking her dog Thursday night that led searchers to Casey.  It was well after dark when a woman reported to a law enforcement officer that she thought she heard a child crying out from the woods.

Valenzuela and Shane Grier, from Chocowinity EMS, had finished their duties for the evening and volunteered to check out the tip.  They rode out and met the woman and she directed them to where she heard the sounds.

“We didn’t hear anything right away,” said Valenzuela, “so we rode further down the road.  We heard some voices that turned out to be neighbors.” As they backtracked they started to hear other sounds. “We thought it sounded like cats fighting - like a bobcat.  It was coming every 20-40 seconds.”

They left their vehicle and began following the sounds into the woods, sometimes through knee deep water, stopping every few minutes to listen and redirect.  As they got closer, it sounded different. “We realized this was no bobcat, it was a kid,” said Valenzuela.  “We were locked on.” They radioed command to get more personnel.

A few minutes later, Grier spotted the boy in a briar patch, confused and cold, but able to speak.  The boy was less than half a mile from where he disappeared.  He had been missing for more than 55 hours.   Valenzuela radioed the good news to the command post.

“As we were coming out, more searchers met us halfway,” Valenzuela said.   They put the boy in a police vehicle and rushed him to the hospital in New Bern.

“We were at the right time and right place, and glad we could follow that lead to reunite Casey with his family,” said Valenzuela.  “The entire search over three days was a team effort, all the agencies did a heck of a job.”

“I think this will change some records on missing children and survival probability,” said Stanley Kite, Craven County Emergency Management Director. “It’s against all the odds of everything we have been taught about search and exposure.  All the qualifiers were against him, including age and size, and he made it.”

“It was an awesome job by everyone,” said Kite, referring to the many agencies involved.  “They came together like they had worked with each other for their entire lives.”

Keith Acree