After an exhaustive search for a 5-year-old boy in a rain-swollen creek in Southern California, officials found the child's body in the water Thursday, buried under 6 to 8 feet of debris.
Cal Fire Division Chief Nick Schuler said the body of a young boy – who has now been officially identified by the San Diego County Medical Examiner (ME) as Fallbrook resident Phillip Campbell – was discovered just after 11 a.m. in very thick brush and trees, in an area referred to by officials as a “strainer.”
Schuler said strainers are areas where large trees have fallen across the creek and where debris and brush has gotten hung up as the water rushes through.
He said Cal Fire’s inmate hand crews were removing debris and brush in a heavily-wooded strainer area when they noticed a small shoe lying in the brush. As they removed more debris, they uncovered the body of a little boy.
The area where the body was found is near Moon Valley Nurseries on the west side of Interstate 15.
Schuler said the area was difficult to access, making for a “very technical search – very complicated and dangerous.”
“[The creek] probably flowed in excess of 15 to 18 feet deep and 80 feet wide,” he explained. “He was buried in approximately 6 to 8 feet of debris.”
“It literally was like a needle in a haystack to try and find this little boy,” he added.
Schuler confirmed the search for Phillip was over Thursday.
Phillip was last seen near the creek Sunday amid a series of strong winter storms that swept San Diego County and the surrounding region.
According to the boy's family, Phillip was traveling by car that day with family friend Roland Phillips, 73. As their car approached the area, it was carried away by rising water in what is normally a small creek running across San Diego's North County to the Pacific Ocean.
Roland was heading to Riverside County to check out a car for sale and took the boy along, family members said. The pair were inseparable and did everything together.
Investigators don't yet have all the facts, but it appears to the boy's family that the creek spilled over onto Fifth Street, east of Interstate 15, and swept Roland's Toyota Camry into Rainbow Creek.
Since Sunday, crews with Cal Fire and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (SDSO) had been extensively searching the area. Winter storm conditions and water levels in the creek made the first few days of the search extremely difficult and dangerous.
On Monday, Roland’s body was pulled from the creek. However, Phillip was nowhere to be found.
One Rainbow resident told NBC 7 that she saw the boy clinging to a tree limb before disappearing downstream on Sunday. The ME's report said other witnesses called 911 to report the child floating in the creek.
The searched pressed on – by ground and air – over the next five days. On Tuesday, SDSO officials searched by helicopter from the point where Roland’s vehicle was believed to have entered the creek to the ocean. A crew flew low enough for searchers to try and spot any sign of the child.
Deputies said their mission was a recovery effort, not a rescue, as they child was presumed dead.
As the rain stopped and water levels dropped, the search resumed Wednesday and again Thursday.
Schuler said four swift water teams continued to move up and down the creek. SDSO search and rescue teams canvassed the area.
He said the mission was challenging as there were so many downed trees in the creek, crews had to cut away the trees to search for the boy.
“There were trees in excess of 2 feet in diameter [knocked down in the creek,” Schuler explained.
Officials said the body discovered Thursday was located about a mile away from where Roland’s truck and his body were found earlier in the week.
At a news briefing Thursday, SDSO public information officer Ryan Keim called the case a true tragedy. He thanked search crews for their teamwork and dedication.
“An incident like this – as heartbreaking and tragic as it – everyone came together, and really sacrificed to find this little boy and to bring some closure for his family,” said Keim.
“I think what’s important to realize, is that this is a tragic, heartbreaking day for everybody involved. I can tell you that each of the rescuers out here had that family and that little boy on their mind the entire time they were searching – and through some very treacherous conditions,” he added. “But, that’s what keeps them going, is knowing that they’re there to bring some closure to this family.”
Phillip's uncle, Anthony Campbell, confirmed via a social media post Thursday that the body was that of Phillip. He posted this message online:
"The search and rescue team have found my nephew Phillip...please join me tonight at Calvary chapel in fallbrook from 6 to 7 for a Candlelight Vigil...thank you for your loving thoughts and prayers may his innocent soul find eternal rest...Tony. Dear God, As we mourn the loss of innocent Phillip We know that our heartache is not Hidden from your loving Spirit As we face the loss of this precious child We ask that You comfort us with the knowledge that Phillip now lives in your loving embrace. Amen."
Early in the search for the boy, his grandmother, Lynda Campbell, told NBC 7 the family knew Phillip was gone.
“We know Phillip now is just a shell. He's with Jesus but we would like to bring him home and give him a burial,” she said.
Phillip was a student at Mike Choate Preschool and was described by loved ones as curious, silly and full of laughter.
He was best friends with Roland, whom he called "Pappy." Phillips lived with the boy's legal guardian and his grandmother.
"He followed him everywhere, everywhere," Philip's grandmother said of the boy's friendship with Roland.
Family and friends gathered at Calvary Chapel in Fallbrook Thursday night to pay tribute to Phillip and Roland. The family said they will forever be grateful for the community's outpouring of love and support during this difficult time.
According to the ME's report, little Phillip had turned 5 on Jan. 13. His cause and manner of death will be determined at a later time.