ROCKPORT - Standing just a few hundred feet from the spot where 2-year-old Caleigh Anne Harrison disappeared the day before, Barbara Somers pressed binoculars to her face and stared out into the ocean.
She had been looking for more than an hour. All she had seen was a couple of seals.
It’s a strange feeling, she said, to look so hard for something you don’t want to find. “It’s a nightmare. There’s a mother out there who didn’t have her little girl with her last night.’’
Authorities say Caleigh was playing with her mother, 4-year-old sister, and the family dog when she went missing shortly after noon Thursday at Long Beach, which has no lifeguards this early in the season.
Officials from the Rockport police and fire departments, State Police, US Coast Guard, and the state’s Environmental Police launched a search, using helicopters, all-terrain vehicles, vessels, sonar, and scuba divers.
A buoy about the same weight as Caleigh was dropped into the inlet at noon Friday to replicate a possible current path. The buoy ran aground at a nearby beach.
The legions of searchers turned up no sign of the toddler with light brown hair and blue-gray eyes, last seen wearing a light pink T-shirt and dark pink Capri pants.
An early investigation indicated that Caleigh’s sister, mother, and the dog were playing with a ball that flew over the platform leading from the beach up to nearby cottages, State Police spokesman David Procopio said Thursday. He said the girl’s mother went to retrieve the ball and momentarily lost sight of the children. When she looked back, Caleigh was gone.
Trooper Thomas Murphy, a State Police spokesman, said divers will return to Long Beach Saturday morning. Canine search units and divers will also be at Milk Island, an uninhabited spit of land about a mile away from Long Beach. Milk Island is on a possible current path, said Procopio.
Investigators have not ruled out foul play, he said.
An AMBER Alert, a bulletin issued when a child is believed to have been abducted, was not sent out for Caleigh because “there is certain criteria that need to met,’’ Murphy said. He said he could not specify what those criteria are. Typically, those alerts are issued if law enforcement officials believe that a child has been abducted by a stranger, if a child is at risk of injury or death, and if police have sufficient descriptive information about the appearance of the child and a potential suspect.
The Coast Guard pulled out of the search around 8:30 a.m. Friday after searching 248 square miles in three vessels, Coast Guard public affairs specialist Adam Stanton said. Coast Guard officers are standing by to be deployed again if information emerges suggesting the girl’s whereabouts.
Two women who answered the door at Caleigh’s home, about a 10-minute ride from Long Beach, and identified themselves as her aunts declined to comment, saying they know nothing more than what is in news reports.
Police conducted a preliminary interview with Caleigh’s 4-year-old sister, said Procopio, and they are bringing in an interviewer who works with children who have experienced traumatic events.
Police also interviewed a body surfer who was on the beach at the time, along with a few passersby who were on a nearby street.
About 60 people attended a vigil for Caleigh on Friday night on a sandy road near the spot where she disappeared. Flames flickered in the chilly sea breeze as bundled-up neighbors, many holding young children, gathered at the end of sandy Glenmere Road.
Residents emerged from a cluster of beachfront cottages and stood in a circle, saying the Lord’s Prayer. Many hugged each other.
Lori-ann Giamanco, 35, of Gloucester, said she is a childhood friend of Caleigh’s mother. “This could have happened to anybody,’’ she said. “Allison is one of the best moms I know.’’
Long Beach stretches for about half a mile, lined with summer homes made of sun-bleached wood with names like Sandhill, Silver Spray, and Breakers.
In the hours after Caleigh went missing, the shoreline buzzed with activity: Police officers, firefighters, and dozens of volunteers combed over the sand and the waterfront cottages. But by noon Friday, the beach was nearly empty. Residents said they believe hopes that the girl will be found safe are fading.
For much of the day, the helicopter hovered over the water, typically about 48 degrees at this time of year, moving back and forth from positions close to the shoreline and further out to sea. Officers stood atop a rock promontory close to the site of the girl’s disappearance, staring out at the water and pointing.
Caleigh was last seen playing on a wooden foot bridge that straddles an inlet from the ocean at the north end of the beach. That inlet, Procopio said, would have carried strong currents as the tide receded Thursday and was a short distance from where the family was playing. Powerful riptides churn the waters off the beach, he said.
Fred Hochberger, 51, the fourth of five generations to live in his house on Long Beach, said the water along that part of the beach is notorious among residents. The sand is soft and can cave in, he said, so a person who tries to wade through it can be pitched into a current and be drawn out to sea, especially during a waning tide. The tide hit its highest point about an hour before Caleigh went missing.
“We all stay away from it,’’ Hochberger said. “If she didn’t know how to swim, she could have been washed out to sea very quickly.’’