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Renewed search for toddler swept to sea fails to find evidence

GLOUCESTER — Allison Hammond came to Good Harbor Beach Wednesday morning with an impossible mix of feelings.

After a pair of toddler-size pink capri pants were discovered on this beach last week, she was hopeful that an intensive search Wednesday would yield new insight into what happened to her daughter. Caleigh Harrison, 2, went missing in April during a Rockport beach outing and is believed to have been swept out to sea, though her family has wondered if they will ever really know what happened.

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But finding something, Hammond said, would also bring its own pain.

“You don’t want to hope that your daughter fell into the water and drowned while you were yards away,” Hammond said. “You don’t want that.”

A daylong search for evidence related to the missing toddler concluded without success Wednesday, after 25 volunteers and five trained search dogs combed sections of beach in Rockport and Gloucester.

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German shepherds wearing fluorescent vests and jingling bells pored over large swaths of the beach, picking their way through tall grass and sniffing piles of seaweed and debris on the sand. Volunteers prodded at seaweed and branches, turning over fresh terrain for the dogs.

The dogs found six bone fragments, but a forensic anthropologist determined they were all from animals, said Maureen Flatley, a volunteer with Mission for the Missing, the nonprofit group that organized the search.

The searches were conducted over about five hours at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, and Pebble Beach and Long Beach in Rockport. Caleigh was last seen on April 19, at Long Beach, where she had been sunbathing with her mother and her sister, Elizabeth, now 5 years old, and their dog. Hammond said she briefly walked away from her children, and Caleigh disappeared.

“It wasn’t long,” said Hammond Wednesday. “But it was long enough.”

The renewed search came after a local resident found the pair of pants Friday at the north end Good Harbor Beach, which is a about a mile south of Long Beach. The pants were entwined in part of a lobster trap, and Hammond confirmed that they appeared identical to those her daughter had been wearing when she disappeared. Officials are trying to ascertain if any DNA could be collected from the pants, Flatley said.

Flatley said it is probable the pants were washed up on the beach by large waves churned up by the remnants of Hurricane Sandy two weeks ago. Caleigh’s family and volunteers had hoped that other clues may have been among the piles of ocean debris littered above the high tide line.

But while volunteers failed to find anything related to Caleigh, Flatley said Wednesday’s search was beneficial: The dogs discovered other bones on the beach, which Flatley said suggests the area was properly combed over. Now, she said, volunteers want to take their search to the sea.

“We know that the system worked,” said Flatley. “Now the question is, where do we go now?”

State Police were instrumental in the first water searches for the missing girl. Wednesday evening, State Police spokesman David Procopio said the department has no plans to reinitiate the water search because it would be impossible to determine where to place divers and boats in the ocean.

At a press conference Wedneday morning beside the Good Harbor Beach concession stand, Caleigh’s parents said that they have mostly come to terms that their daughter is probably no longer alive; now, they say, they just want certainty about what happened.

“You always have that hope. That never dies,” said Anthony Harrison, Caleigh’s father. “But you also get to a point where you want some kind of closure, you want some answers. That would be God’s gift.”

Hammond said the discovery of the pink pants had made her somewhat confident that Caleigh did get swept out to sea and her disappearance wasn’t foul play, as family members once speculated. Finding some piece of evidence that would confirm Caleigh’s fate would offer some comfort.

For the last seven months, she said, thoughts about her missing daughter have been all-consuming: Every night when she goes to sleep, she said, the scene on the beach that day in April plays over and over again.

Still, she said, she’s tried to move on. She and Elizabeth made multiple outings to local beaches throughout the summer. Keeping Elizabeth away from the benefits of this community is not what Caleigh would have wanted, Hammond said.

“There are joys beyond our grief,” she said.

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.
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