By Stephanie Bergman
ROCKPORT — The search will be continuing today for missing toddler Caleigh Ann Harrison.
But the search divers are moving further away from the beach where she was last seen, and the Coast Guard on Friday pulled back from the increasingly grim search, seeing it now as a "recovery" effort more than its "search and rescue" mission.
No new information was available Friday night, except that police are still searching for the nearly 3-year-old Caleigh.
As of Friday night, Massachusetts State Police said investigators from the Essex County District Attorney's Office were still conducting interviews with people in the area.
State Police have been unable to rule out the possibility of foul play, but spokesman David Procopio said there has never been enough evidence of abduction to issue an Amber Alert.
Authorities, meanwhile, clearly concentrated their search later Friday on a premise that Caleigh, the 2-year, 9-month-old daughter of Allison Hammond of Washington Street, somehow went into the water while her mom had briefly left Caleigh and her 4-year-old sister Elizabeth to retrieve their ball, which had gone over a nearby wall.
The National Weather Service had put out a severe seas warning for Thursday and Friday, and Long Beach is noted for having a strong undertow.
Rockport police Chief John "Tom" McCarthy recalled that, several years ago, a group of children playing in the same area came dangerously close to being lost to the strong current.
"There is often a riptide in that area," said McCarthy.
Waves on the beach were high and rough Friday, and the waves were also large when Caleigh disappeared Thursday, shortly after high tide.
While the Coast Guard officially pulled back its active search Friday morning, Rockport police and firefighters, State Police, Environmental Police and assorted local residents all continued to scour the area to no apparent avail.
Up to six divers have been in the water, primarily combing near rocks just off the beach. The divers were again called off for the night, but will resume the search this morning.
The divers will be concentrating on the waters around Milk Island when they search Saturday, officials said Friday night. Milk Island, south and east of the beach where Caleigh disappeared, is in the flow of the current out of the area of Long and Cape Hedge beaches.
A state police team is also using a sidescan sonar device underwater to search.
The site where Caleigh was last seen — where Long Beach meets Cape Hedge Beach — was roped off with yellow crime scene tape Friday, though Procopio said the scene was a potential crime scene, not a certain one.
The dive teams, members of the state and environmental police, took turns searching in the 45-degree water throughout the day. Even with dry suits, special equipment designed to keep the diver warm, and fleece layers under the suits, the divers said they were staying underwater for only 45 minutes at a time.
The oxygen tanks the dive teams use hold either an hour or 90 minutes worth of air, but the frigid temperatures, as cold as 35 degrees farther down in the water, take a toll on the divers.
Locals on Friday continued to search for Caleigh as well, on their own or in small groups. Several fishing boats were noted in the area, and they also seemed to be searching the water.
"We don't want a lot people out there," said Procopio. "We appreciate their good intentions, but leave it to the trained searchers."
Members of Caleigh's family, meanwhile, were holding a candlelight vigil Friday night on Long Beach to offer prayers for the toddler.
Caleigh's relatives and their friends have been camped out on Long Beach, staying near the site where the toddler disappeared and anxiously awaiting news.
Hammond herself continued to hold out hope Friday, writing on her Facebook page "I love you my baby, forever in my heart."
Stephanie Bergman can contacted at 978-283-7000 x3451 or firstname.lastname@example.org