Three-year-old Casey Hathaway was last seen playing with two other children in his great-grandmother’s backyard on January 22, 2019. When the children went back into the house, Casey did not follow. The family searched for the missing boy for 45 minutes, then called North Carolina’s Craven County Sheriff Department. His great grandmother told the 911 operator:
“He was walking in the woods back there and we can’t find him. The other ones come through the house but left him there and he walked off somewhere and we can’t find him.”
Search and rescue teams arrived from across the state to assist but the weather conditions were so bad, some were turned away. Helicopters, drones, and K-9 dogs scoured the area which was described as “extremely rugged”. On day two, the weather worsened, and the search was halted. On day three, the weather improved and the search resumed but there was little hope that the young boy survived the “extreme cold” and torrential rain.
Craven County Sheriff Chip Hughes told reporters:
“Casey wasn’t adequately dressed for the weather and I’m concerned about sinkholes and deep water ditches in the area. Divers are assessing nearby ponds.”
“We went through the woods – through the thicket and the briars. We did it for three-and-a-half, four hours and it was bad. It was really bad out there. As it got darker, it was scary out there. I just can’t imagine a 3-year-old being out there.”
On day three, a tip reporting a crying child led the search team deep into the woods where they heard little Casey calling for his mother. He was found tangled in vines, brush, and briars.
Casey was not dressed for cold weather. His survival in temperatures that dipped to 20-degrees was inexplicable. But when investigators asked about how he spent his time in the woods, the three-year-old volunteered a noteworthy detail: a bear kept him company.
Major David McFadyen with the Craven County Sheriff’s Office explained:
“He made a comment about having a friend while he was in the woods — his friend was a bear. In the emergency room he started talking about what happened in the woods and he said he had a friend that was a bear with him while he was in the woods.”
Authorities say the area is rife with bears but this is the first they’ve heard of a bear protecting a young human. Sheriff McFadyen told reporters:
“All that matters is that something was there to comfort him during the three days.”