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Little Caleigh was gone, and so was family’s center

It’s been 5 weeks since a 2-year-old vanished on a Rockport beach, apparently swept away with the tide. Grief, anger, and a thread of hope have defined her family’s life since.

Allison Hammond and her daughter Lizzie, 4, now live in a new apartment. Lizzie has plans for “when Caleigh comes back.’’

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Allison Hammond and her daughter Lizzie, 4, now live in a new apartment. Lizzie has plans for “when Caleigh comes back.’’

It was early in the season, but April 19 was a perfect beach day: deep blue skies and temperatures in the mid-60s. Allison Hammond had the day off from work, and decided to take her two young daughters, Elizabeth, 4, and Caleigh, 2, to Long Beach in Rockport, where she’d practically grown up.

At 11:30 a.m., she loaded them and her parents’ dog, Lucas, into her Toyota RAV4, arriving at the beach 10 minutes later. Parking at an empty cottage owned by her uncle, she and the girls kicked off their shoes and walked along the water’s edge with Lucas until they reached the far end of the beach. It was high tide, with a current pulling out to sea.

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Caleigh Harrison disappeared during a trip to Long Beach in Rockport on April 19. She vanished as her mother searched for a dog’s ball.

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When Allison went looking for the dog’s ball she says she had errantly thrown over a cement retaining wall, leaving the girls on the beach below, Caleigh vanished. An exhaustive search by local and State Police, the Coast Guard, family members, and an army of volunteers has yielded no sign of her, in the water or on land.

It has been five weeks since the little girl with the Pebbles ponytail and winsome dimples disappeared. Gone, too, are the lives her loved ones led, replaced by an agonizing wait and the devastating question: Where is Caleigh?

For her parents, Anthony Harrison and Allison Hammond, and their extended families of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, it has become a daily struggle to survive. Many of them stayed out of work for weeks, continuing the search on their own, plastering the area with posters, ribbons, and stickers, planning a townwide vigil, staying in contact with police.

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Not knowing whether Caleigh is dead or alive has produced anguish and grief. There is an undercurrent of dismay, even anger, toward Allison felt by some relatives, but it is mostly muted, as the Harrison and Hammond families present a united front. “Team Caleigh,’’ they call themselves.

But in the family circle - and in the public’s mind - the question lingers: How could Allison turn her back on her daughters, even for a minute, with the ocean just yards away?

‘When she wasn’t found after a massive search, with the Coast Guard, police, and troopers, then you have to have new hope. You have to believe other scenarios are possible, that she’s still out there, still alive, and will be brought home.’

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The early days of grief-stricken planning for a funeral have turned into weeks of waiting for some word, some sign, anything. Her family now believes - wants to believe - that Caleigh may be alive.

“It has been an emotional roller coaster,’’ says Anthony, 45, a carpenter for a Gloucester construction company. “When she wasn’t found after a massive search, with the Coast Guard, police, and troopers, then you have to have new hope. You have to believe other scenarios are possible, that she’s still out there, still alive, and will be brought home.’’

He knows that this hope - that a kidnapper, not the sea, took Caleigh away - would be an unimaginable torment for most parents. But it has kept his family going. “We’re not going to give up hope that she’s alive until you give me absolute proof that she isn’t.’’

Her family speaks of Caleigh in the present tense. “She’s a very good natured kid, very friendly, goofy. We call her Goober,’’ says Allison, 35.

The Harrisons and the Hammonds agreed to talk to the Globe about the ordeal, saying they don’t want the public to forget about Caleigh.

According to the Department of Justice, an average of 2,185 children under the age of 18 are reported missing every day. Some are abducted by relatives or strangers. Some run away from home. Most are found within a few days.

Experts say that the disappearance of a child can be more devastating than the death of a child. Death, at least, provides a conclusion.

“The hardest thing is having nothing to give closure,’’ says Maureen Flatley, a child welfare advocate who works with the Quincy nonprofit Mission for the Missing and has spent many hours with Caleigh’s family, offering support and guidance. “Having no body keeps hope alive, but it also prevents closure and reconciliation.’’

That day

Anthony and Allison, both Gloucester natives, met in 2005 over karaoke at a local bar and married less than a year later. Elizabeth was born in 2007, Caleigh in 2009.

The couple separated last September - amicably, both say - and share custody of the girls. Anthony has them Wednesday nights and weekends; Allison works those days and sometimes nights as a bartender and waitress at Stones Pub in Gloucester.

The night before Caleigh disappeared, the girls were with their father. He made chicken fingers and french fries, and they watched “Scooby-Doo.’’ The next morning, he dropped them off at the home of his in-laws, Chris and Jerry Hammond, where Allison had been staying since the separation.

Then, for Allison and the kids, it was off to the beach.

“Allison was trying to get the kids worn out that day at the beach, so she could come home and pack. She was moving two days later,’’ says her sister, Melanie Pyle.

Allison says she was throwing a tennis ball for Lucas when it went over a 15-foot sea wall. Behind the wall, perched above the beach, is a row of summer cottages, most of them empty in April. She left the girls on the beach, close to the wall - she thinks they were a long way from the water; police say at high tide the children would have been quite close - while she walked up the steps to look for the ball on the other side.

The beach remained within view as she climbed, and she says she looked down at the girls as she walked. “I checked on them a couple of times as I was searching. But that last time, it was too long that I had my back turned. You know, you get that feeling . . .’’

As Allison gazed down at the spot where her daughters had been, there was only Elizabeth, arms outstretched, shouting: “Caleigh’s gone!’’

Allison, who estimates she had been away from them no more than two minutes, ran down to the beach and into a nearby creek with a swift current that empties into the ocean. “It’s like a water slide with a vacuum cleaner,’’ says Flatley, who lives in nearby Essex.

Caleigh, 2 years and 9 months old, was wearing bright pink shorts and a pink top, and the water was crystal clear, her mother says. There was no sign of her.

Except for a few surfers and dog walkers, the beach was empty. Allison’s cellphone was in the car, way down the beach. Two women, checking out summer rentals, heard her calling for Caleigh and telephoned 911.

Rockport police arrived and took Allison, hysterical, to her car, along with Elizabeth. Later her mother would say that the girl was actually comforting her. “She was soothing me, petting my face,’’ Allison says. “She knew I was upset, but she didn’t really get it.’’

In Danvers, Anthony was building a deck with his construction crew. At 12:35, he got the call from his sobbing wife. It took him 10 minutes to make the 20-minute drive.

The search

That first day, 45 Rockport police officers and state troopers, as well as firefighters, environmental police, Coast Guard vessels, helicopters, and several volunteer boats began the search. Two K-9 dogs were airlifted to uninhabited Milk Island, a mile offshore, because the current was moving that way.

Caleigh’s family looked, too, combing the beach and marshes. They joined police in searching the cottages, most of them still boarded up: under porches, on decks, in cars and boats, and inside the few houses that were open.

“I said, she’s going to come out from under a porch, or maybe she’s hiding,’’ her father says. “It was her naptime, and it was possible she fell asleep.’’ Some relatives stayed out until nearly midnight. They could not bear to go home without Caleigh.

The second day, the Coast Guard stopped calling it a rescue; it was now about “recovery.’’ “Deep down, you know if she’s in the water, every hour that went by, the chance of finding her alive was going down,’’ says State Police spokesman David Procopio.

On day three, a storm rolled in, making an ocean search impossible. On April 25, 40 police officers and divers were back at it. The next day, a week after Caleigh went missing, the search was suspended.

Lizzie’s story

Naturally, everyone wondered what Elizabeth, who is known as “Lizzie’’ and will be 5 in June, would reveal. At first, she told police and her parents she did not know what happened. But a few days later, her family says, she told a friend she was playing with that “a mean man took Caleigh.’’

Her father, aunt, and grandmother say they overheard the conversation. Lizzie, they said, described a heavyset man in black shorts, smoking, with a bald patch and facial hair. She even drew a picture for them.

“The detail was eerie,’’ her father says. “The hair on the back of my neck was standing up.’’

The family asked police to interview her again. Afterward, police told the family that there was no evidence of kidnapping, that the disappearance was “a tragic accident.’’

Procopio declined to give details of the interview with Lizzie but said: “We did not have a description of any man on the beach.’’ Witnesses told police that they saw Allison and her daughters but didn’t see anyone else coming or going.

“There is no evidence of foul play, period,’’ Procopio says.

Her father thinks Lizzie might not have disclosed the “mean man’’ to police out of fear. “I believe she’s scared she’s going to get in trouble,’’ Anthony says. “She feels she was supposed to watch her sister and she didn’t.’’

Lizzie’s story is the life preserver to which the family is clinging. “Growing up here, I absolutely know the ocean takes things away,’’ her mother says. “But I truly believe if Caleigh was in the water, rescuers would have found her the first day.’’

The backlash

In cases of missing children, the family always comes under scrutiny. After appearing on cable network HLN’s “Nancy Grace’’ show two weeks after Caleigh disappeared, her parents were skewered by viewers. The couple say they went on the show in hopes of generating leads about their daughter, but viewers’ online reaction was scathing.

Allison didn’t show any grief, some said. Anthony simply “looked guilty.’’ One post questioned whether the couple had a book deal. (They don’t.)

“The blogs were horrible,’’ Anthony says. “It’s bad enough I have no idea what happened to my daughter, and I have to deal with these crazy [expletive]?’’

Townspeople have also questioned why Allison was seen out in stores, a beauty parlor, and the pub where she works in the first week after Caleigh’s disappearance. Allison, who returned to work within two weeks, says she has had to keep busy, and that her colleagues and customers provide support.

Catherine Curcuru, Anthony’s sister, owns a beauty salon in Gloucester and hears the word on the street. She knows many in town wonder at Allison’s seemingly dispassionate response to her daughter’s disappearance.

“A lot of people aren’t happy with her demeanor,’’ Curcuru says. “She acts like nothing ever happened. It’s almost like she lost her luggage at the airport.’’

Allison says she is not one to emote, at least not publicly.

“I don’t like crying in front of other people,’’ she says. If she starts to cry, it will be “like opening floodgates.’’

She says it hasn’t been easy holding back. “I have to shut feelings off for Caleigh. I think about her, but I don’t let myself feel the love, to remember what it felt to love her, because the pain is so overwhelming.’’

The grief

Anthony, who stayed out of work for more than three weeks, looks haggard, with deep circles under heavy eyes. He hasn’t returned to his condo - where Caleigh spent that last night - since the day she vanished. He has been living with his brother David’s family in the rambling duplex they share with David Sr. and Antonette, Caleigh’s paternal grandparents. A large pink bow with “Caleigh’’ on it hangs from the mailbox.

On their side of the house, the older couple deals with their grief in various ways. She cooks trays of food or sits with her sister, wielding a glue gun and making pink and green ribbons. “Green is the color for missing children, and pink is because she’s a sweetheart,’’ she says of her youngest grandchild.

They have fashioned a shrine, with statues of St. Joseph and St. Anthony, balloons, and messages for Caleigh: “Love you with all my heart.’’ “Caleigh come home.’’

Dave Sr. has searched 20 miles of marsh, the nearby state park, and the shorelines at low tide. He drives to Long Beach every Thursday, the day of the week his granddaughter disappeared.

“The beach is where I feel connected to her, because it was the last place she was seen,’’ he says. At the beach, he reads a prayer to St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things. He cries.

Both the Harrisons and the Hammonds have deep roots in Gloucester. Checks have poured in from friends and strangers, and they have set up the Caleigh Harrison Relief Fund. Its mission: child safety.

Allison and the girls lived with her parents, Chris and Jerry, for seven months before she recently moved into her own apartment.

The Hammonds have been unable to turn the girls’ playroom back into their dining room. “I just feel like the spirit has been sucked out of me,’’ says Jerry, who for weeks searched the beach and surrounding area.

Chris, Jerry, and Allison’s sister Melanie also say they believe that Caleigh may be alive. Two psychics they consulted told them Caleigh didn’t go in the water.

They worry about Allison, too, and try to see that she’s not alone. “I know some people don’t approve that she went back to work, but I encouraged her,’’ says Chris. “I’m going to do all I can to not let her go into a deep depression.’’

Her parents and sister describe Allison as normally upbeat and outgoing, but say she can “shut down’’ when overwhelmed.

Anger and guilt

Allison knows what people are saying about her. “It’s a small town, and people think what they want to think.’’ She says she feels guilty about leaving the girls alone on the beach.

Still, she says: “I can’t say I regret the day, because up until the moment she disappeared, it was a beautiful day . . . a perfect day gone bad.’’ Her focus remains on finding Caleigh. “I can’t let it [guilt] eat me. I can’t dwell on it. I can only move forward and have faith she’s going to be found.’’

The Harrison family’s feelings about Allison’s actions that day have been mostly restrained.

“I don’t believe anyone can say they’re not angry,’’ says Caleigh’s paternal grandfather. “But it’s hard, because Allison is going to have to live with this the rest of her life, as are all of us.’’

Caleigh’s father keeps his anger in check, too. “It’s definitely something we’re going to have to deal with when the proper time comes,’’ Anthony says. “My focus is on the most important thing here, and that is to find Cal.’’

But his sister, Catherine Curcuru, doesn’t mince words. “I don’t deny that she loves her kids, but there’s a difference between loving your kids and parenting your kids. This was no accident, not in my eyes. It could have been prevented.’’

In fact, Curcuru says, Allison has lost sight of the girls other times, including incidents at the beach that Curcuru’s children, 10 and 7, have reported. Last summer, she says, Lizzie was lost at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester for 45 minutes. A friend who was with Allison told Curcuru about it. After that, Curcuru told Allison that her children would not be returning to the beach with her.

Allison acknowledges that Lizzie “took off’’ at the beach twice last summer, but denies losing her. “Once, Lizzie went one way, and Caleigh went the other, so I went after Caleigh. The second time, Lizzie went off after her cousins without telling me.’’ She adds: “This is two times out of dozens of times we went to the beach.’’

Since Caleigh vanished, her parents have worked together to care for Lizzie. But last week Rockport police asked the state Department of Children and Families to investigate the girl’s well-being. The report was filed after Anthony expressed to police his concern over Allison’s emotional state.

“I never asked for an investigation,’’ he says. But police told him it was protocol in cases where a child goes missing. Department caseworkers have interviewed both parents; the inquiry is ongoing.

Today

Allison has not returned to Long Beach since Caleigh’s disappearance. Three weeks ago, she moved from her parents’ house into a new apartment in Gloucester. It used to be that when Lizzie was in preschool, Allison would spend her mornings with Caleigh. “It’s hard to find a way to live without her,’’ she says.

She sticks to routine, dropping Lizzie off at school in the morning, running errands, going for coffee. Later she picks Lizzie up and they go to the playground, or the store, or to lunch. On Mother’s Day, she worked.

Her parents don’t grill Lizzie about that day at the beach, but Allison says she has asked her where she thinks Caleigh is.

“I don’t know,’’ Lizzie replied.

“Do you think she’ll come home?’’

“Oh yeah, she misses us.’’

Lizzie has planned activities for “when Caleigh comes back.’’ She has insisted on buying toys, coloring books, and juice boxes for the little sister she loved to dress up like a doll.

Her father says Lizzie needs to be held and cuddled more. “She is going through her own private hell,’’ he says.

So, of course, is he. After weeks of sleepless nights, he was prescribed medication for anxiety and depression. “I think most of us in the family will need help,’’ he says.

Anthony’s father has a recurring dream: A car pulls up in the driveway, and Caleigh comes running into the house. “Someone, maybe a distraught mother who lost a baby, realizes she belongs with her family and they’ll bring her back.’’

The family is determined not to give up on Caleigh. “We’re not burying an empty box,’’ Anthony says, “I promised her I’d never stop looking, and I won’t.’’

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.
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