STANLEY, N.C. – The North Carolina father who was working in a two-story-deep hole that collapsed said Tuesday that he worked frantically to save his daughter and her cousin from the wall of falling dirt that killed them.
Jordan Arwood, 31, of Stanley was operating a backhoe Sunday night in the pit when the walls caved in on the children. The bodies of the two young cousins, 6-year-old Chloe Jade Arwood and 7-year-old James Levi Caldwell, were dug out Monday morning.
Arwood is the girl's father; his parents, Nancy and Ken Caldwell, had adopted the boy. Arwood lived next to his parents and the pit was on his property.
In his first media interview, Arwood told the Associated Press that he reached out to save the children but they were just outside his reach. He says he dug faster and faster trying to save the children until he couldn't breathe.
"When the wall came down, I kept grabbing what was in front of me — grabbing enough dirt, grabbing boulders. ... I wasn't going to stop until I pulled them out. But I couldn't save them," he said, sobbing.
He paused for a moment.
"I wish it was me,' he said.
Lincoln County Sheriff's Office Detective Lt. Tim Johnson said investigators were interviewing family members and neighbors about the case. When they finished, they planned to present their findings to the district attorney's office.
Investigators 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. No permits had been issued for Arwood to dig on the site.
Johnson said investigators still don't know why Arwood was digging the hole and that people have speculated that the pit was everything from a "doomsday bunker" to an underground structure for "illegal activity," such as growing marijuana.
But Arwood said he was building a rammed earth home, an ancient building method where dirt is used to shape the foundation. Arwood said he had been digging the hole for three months.
Sheriff's deputies on Monday removed firearms and a marijuana plant from Arwood's mobile home. Arwood 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.
Dion Burleson, spokesman for the Denver Fire Department which responded to collapse, said crews filled in the pit on Monday.
Arwood said he didn't expect the walls to collapse. And late Tuesday afternoon, Arwood walked to the site of the pit and pointed to the spot where his daughter and Caldwell were buried under the dirt.
He recalled that his daughter and nephew were inseparable. Caldwell has a twin sister and an older brother. The house was always filled with laughter. Now, he's haunted by the memories. They come in waves.
"How many times did I have to tell him (Caldwell) to brush his teeth? I'll never be able to tell him again, 'Go brush your teeth, brush your hair.' That was the first thing he did in the morning," he said.
Then his thoughts turned to his daughter.
When rescuers removed her from the clay, he looked at her body in the ambulance.
"When she came out of the hole she was so cold. I just wanted for her to be warm. I just wanted to put my arms around her and tell her she would be safe....I promised her I'd keep her safe," he said. "I promised them I'd keep them safe and warm. I broke that promise."