Its unclear why Jordan Arwood was digging with heavy equipment on his property. The excavation was about 24 feet deep and 20 by 24 feet horizontally when it collapsed on Arwoods 6-year-old daughter, Chloe Jade Arwood, and nephew James Levi Caldwell, 7.
The Lincoln County Building and Grounds Division had issued no building permits to Arwood, 31, Sheriff David Carpenters office said. His office is investigating whether to file charges.
Hopefully, we will be able to determine from him what his intentions were for what he was aiming to build, Carpenter said. It was certainly much larger than what you would have for a normal basement.
Neighbor Bradley Jones told the Associated Press the children often played in the pit when work was underway. Jones, who said he works in construction, said there was no structure to support the pits tall dirt walls.
I told Chelsea not to go in, Jones said, referring to advice he gave his teenage daughter, who babysat the children. It was dangerous. There was nothing to reinforce those walls.
Jason Ferrell, who lives next door, also said he did not agree with Arwood about the holes stability.
It was poor construction, Ferrell said. I hate to put it like that, but it was.
Authorities believe that the children who died in Sunday afternoons accident went inside the hole to retrieve a toy pickax when the ground caved in.
The first 911 call came from Arwood, who was operating a backhoe in the hole when he saw the dirt collapse on the children.
Please, please get somebody out here now. My children are buried under about 20 feet of dirt, Arwood said in a recording of the 911 call obtained by the Observer. They were inside the hole helping us build something and the wall collapsed. Theres no way they can breathe.
As the 911 operator reassured Arwood that help was on the way, Arwood put her on speaker phone and continued digging with relatives and friends.
I cant talk to you anymore, he told her. If youve got somebody coming thats great, but Im doing what Ive got to do to save my children.
Were all still in shock
Another neighbor, Danny Ferrell, said that when he arrived to help dig out the children, the whole family was down there digging with their hands. No one had grabbed shovels at that point.
Some 65 rescue personnel responded to the scene 20 miles northwest of Charlotte. By Sunday night, the search had turned from rescue to recovery.
Two of my grandchildren have been killed. Me and my wife are really in bad shape, the childrens grandfather, Ken Caldwell, said Monday. If I didnt have other ones, I wouldnt see no use staying here.
Relatives and neighbors remembered the two victims as vivacious and curious. No matter how aggravated he was, Danny Ferrell said, Chloe could look at you and smile and it would all go away.
Cindy Parks, the childrens aunt, said Chloe loved pretty little things and Dora the Explorer. She loved to ask questions. James loved painting and participating in the childrens crafts workshop at Lowes.
Were all still in shock. Children arent supposed to die, Parks said. This tragic accident has crushed us.
Land bought Feb. 11
Arwood purchased the land on Feb. 11 for $3,000, according to Lincoln County property records.
Danny Ferrell said Arwood planned to build a three-story house, with the first two floors underground to utilize the earths natural heating and cooling properties.
Parks also said she was under the impression that the hole was meant for a home.
He was building a house with a basement, she said, and he was trying to do as much work (as possible) on his own.
Construction was the leading industry for fatal accidents, with 10 in 2012, according to the N.C. Department of Labor. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 350 workers died in trenching or excavation cave-ins between 2000 and 2009 in the country an average of 35 fatalities per year.
Lack of a protective system was the leading cause of trench-related fatalities in a review of OSHA inspections.
Carpenter said the Sheriffs Office would be looking into whether the hole might have had a different purpose, such as a bunker. Carpenter said he will talk with the Department of Social Services and the District Attorneys office to see what charges might be filed against Arwood.
Arwood has a lengthy criminal history, including convictions between 2000 and 2009 for felony possession with intent to sell or distribute marijuana, resisting a public officer, driving while license revoked and driving while impaired.
On Monday, deputies removed two marijuana plants from Arwoods home, as well as several firearms and grow lights.
Constructing without a permit normally doesnt typically carry a stiff penalty, Carpenter said. Usually, the violator is just asked to obtain a permit.
Given the childrens deaths, he said, this case may be different. Carpenter added that he doesnt expect to make any charges immediately.
Were not out to be hard on anybody, he said. We want to get to the facts of what happened and allow the family this extreme grieving, emotional time theyre going through.
Staff researchers Maria David and Gavin Off, staff writer Kathleen Purvis and The Associated Press contributed.