"She didn't really like the water," says David Harrison. "She was not a water baby. It would not be like her to run into the water and, anyway, they weren't really as close to the water as most people seem to think."
Nevertheless, in those first torturous hours on that first beautiful, blustery April afternoon that his little niece, 2-year-old Caleigh Harrison, vanished from Long Beach, he, like everyone else, thought the sea had taken her.
The sea at that end of that beach forms a notorious tide pool; a narrow strip of water with an undertow so fierce it could drag even the strongest swimmer under. That is what, everyone thought, what had, in the blink of an eye, somehow happened to Caleigh.
Now, three weeks later, he says he's not so sure.
Tonight, hundreds of people are expected to join in a "Sea and Land" candlelight vigil for Caleigh tonight at 7:30 at the city's iconic Fishermen's Memorial, and David Harrison says it will be a vigil with hope. Without a trace of Caleigh turning up despite exhaustive sea searches by boats and helicopters and dive teams, the possibility that she was abducted seems more like a probability to her large extended family.
The vigil will come three weeks and a day after Caleigh disappeared from Long Beach, where she had been playing with her 4-year-old sister, Elizabeth, and their mother Allison Hammond of Gloucester. According to various reports, Hammond had left for a minute or two to retrieve a ball that had gone over a nearby wall. When she turned back, Caleigh was gone.
Massachusetts and Rockport police carried out extensive searches along the shore and in the waters off Long Beach and Cape Hedge Beach, to no avail. Massachusetts State Police, meanwhile, have not ruled out foul play, though authorities never issued an Amber Alert and have said there is no evidence indicating any sings of a potential abduction.
Caleigh's extended family includes aunts and uncles who are more like second sets of parents, and cousins who are more like sisters and brothers, says David Harrison, brother of Caleigh and Elizabeth's father, Anthony. Together, says Maureen Flatley, who is helping them organize tonight's vigil, they are "a wonderful family, the kind of hard-working, close-knit family that's the heart and soul of America."
Flatley, a board member of the Massachusetts Prevention of Cruelty to Children, has worked for years with Mission for the Missing, a Boston-based group that provides logistical support, funding, equipment and trained search and rescue professionals to families of missing persons, both children and adults.
"Caleigh's family reached out for me through friends about 12 days ago," Flatley said Thursday, "and I've been with them ever since."
It has, she says, been a bonding time for all of them. They are, she says, in a second or third phase of grief. In that first week, when it was assumed that Caleigh was lost to the sea, they waited for the sea to return the little girl's body so they could mourn for her and give her a proper burial.
When that didn't happen, what happened instead was the sudden appearance on the beach — a memory surfacing from the confusion and trauma of Caleigh's sister Elizabeth — of a stranger, a man who wore a white shirt and smelled of cigarettes; a man who, Elizabeth said, in the minutes their mother was gone to fetch a ball, "Took Caleigh." That, according to David Harrison and to Flatley, is what Elizabeth now consistently recalls.
"Obviously," says Maureen Flatley, "The family is looking to cling to anything. If the sea took Caleigh, there's no hope. If an abductor took Caleigh, there is."
"We'll take hope," says David Harrison.
Harrison, who is also Caleigh's godfather, speaks of his niece in both past and present tense.
In discussing tonight's vigil, however, he speaks solidly in present tense, and his tone turns positive.
"People want to do things, people want to help," he says, "But what do you do, how do you help in a situation like this? There's no guide book, there's no manual."
"A vigil seemed a way for everyone to show their unity," he says. "All the people who've said 'What can we do?' — this is something they can do, a way to show their unity."
"When something like this happens, you really need support, and this" says Flatley, "is when you see the true beauty of Gloucester. This is the true Gloucester, this town has been amazing in its response to this family."
The city, like this family, wonders, too, as the weeks go by and the sea does not return Caleigh, if the sea really did take Caleigh that day.
"Elizabeth's story is credible," says Flatley. When police first interviewed her after Caleigh vanished, whatever she said convinced them that no abductor was involved, But Flatley, who has worked with many children in traumatic situations, says, "It's not unusual for a child not to be cooperative immediately following a traumatizing event like this, and you don't want to lead or coach them."
"In the case of the Elizabeth Smart abduction, it took her sister, who was also right there, some time to recall events. In this case, once Lizzie began to recall this man, her story did not change, the details were very specific," Flatley says, referring to the high-profile 2002 Utah abduction of a 14-year-old girl. "Where we're at is that her recollection seems very spontaneous, and credible, and could prove useful."
In the meantime, there is tonight's vigil, with participants expected to gather holding candles around "The Man at the Wheel," and the dozens of fishing boats spontaneously gathering in the harbor.
The candles, says David Harrison, are a special kind that will, weather permitting, rise into the sky.
The crowd will hold hands, they will take home with them bumper stickers saying, "Hold Hands for Caleigh."
Whether Caleigh Harrison comes home or not, the vigil will convey that this little girl will always have a home in the hearts of the people of Gloucester.
Joann Mackenzie can be reached at 978-238-7000, x3457, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.