The shovel was barely visible in the snow, and the footprints were old, but something made Police Officer Brandon Rola seize the tool and start digging.
It was nearly 2 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, and Rola was one of several Newburgh, N.Y., police officers desperately searching for two cousins reported missing hours earlier by one's mother. And minutes after following his hunch, Rola - and an air pocket that authorities believe kept the boys, ages 9 and 11, alive - had given two families profound reason to give thanks.
"After I saw the shovel, I just felt compelled to dig," Rola, a 28-year-old, seven-year veteran of the city police force, told FoxNews.com. "I really didn't put it together, but I just started digging."
Rola had made his way to the massive snowbank, formed by a plow operator clearing a parking lot several hundred yards from the boys' home after canvassing the neighborhood and talking to children who reported seeing the unidentified boys in the area. The boys had gone out Wednesday evening to build a snow fort after Newburgh, a city of 28,000 about 60 miles north of New York City, had received six inches during the day. But when the boys didn't returned, one's mother called police just before midnight, setting off a frantic search.
Rola, who was joined by fellow Police Officer John Maguire, soon uncovered a boot, prompting him to call for paramedics. In his gut, he feared the worst, but then Maguire noticed the small boot twitch.
"When John saw that, we just started digging like crazy," Rola said. "But we only had the one shovel, and you're talking about a 7 or 8-foot snowpile. We knocked on doors, got shovels, and pretty soon, we had maybe 10 people working on that pile."
As the boys' frantic parents and other neighbors looked on, the crewof police and volunteers excavated the ruins of the boys' snow fort and found the kids, conscious and alert, but suffering from exposure to the cold.
"It was incredible," said Rola, who estimates the boys were trapped for at least four hours. "Thank goodness, they were bundled up in layers, so they were warm enough."
Police believe the boys had dug into the other side of the snow bank as a plow operator cleared the lot of the Family Health Center, unaware of their presence. At some point, the plowed snow collapsed the fort, caving it in on the boys yet somehow leaving an air pocket that allowed them to breathe.
One of the boy's mothers thanked Newburgh Police in an Instagram post Thursday.
"Today I am thankful my son and nephew are here and I would like to thank the Newburgh Police Officers who found my nephew and my son after searching for them," she wrote. "They found them at 2 am stuck in a huge snowpile that trapped them for several hours so I am very thankful today to have these two safe at home alive."
Rola said he finally made it home early Thursday, and after sleeping, awoke to a traditional Thanksgiving Day with family, albeit one more poignant given the dramatic rescue just hours before.
"It was a good day,” Rola said.