SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Authorities looking for any trace of two missing children doggedly sifted the ashes of a deadly house fire, searched rolling farmland nearby and untangled complicated family relationships.
Investigators aren't sure if 9-year-old Chloie Leverette and her half brother, 7-year-old Gage Daniel, died along with an elderly couple raising them in a fire that incinerated their home Sunday night. Two bodies tentatively identified as 72-year-old Leon "Bubba" McClaran and his 70-year-old wife, Molli McClaran, were recovered Monday but fire investigators said they found no remains of the children.
At the same time, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has found no indication of foul play or a reason to believe the children weren't trapped in the fire.
When the agency was called in Wednesday, it issued an endangered children alert in what spokeswoman Kristin Helm called "an abundance of caution." Search teams with dogs fanned out around the property and helicopters hovered above.
Not knowing is the hardest part, said Mary Lamb, sister of Leon McClaran.
"We want to know. We want to know where those children are, if they were in the fire or if they were taken," she said.
On Thursday, investigators focused on the fire debris at the home, located in horse country roughly 50 miles southeast of Nashville.
Family members and reporters were kept back from the home, which has taken on the appearance of an archaeological dig. Heavy machinery lifted bulky pieces of debris. Large sifting tray tables were set up while workers filled a half-dozen wheelbarrows with fine material from the fire.
It was still not clear what caused the fire, which burned for hours, in part because firefighters had trouble getting water to the remote location.
Local investigators from the Bedford County Sheriff's Department referred all questions to the TBI.
Helm said investigators determined Molli McClaran was the children's grandmother. Agents have interviewed Cheryl Leverette, the mother of the youngsters, and Christopher Daniel, Gage's father. Chloie's father is deceased, she said.
So far, authorities haven't gotten any new leads.
Forensics expert Dr. William Bass, who founded the Body Farm research center at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville to study the decomposition of corpses in a variety of circumstances to aid scientific and criminal research, said even in an intense fire some bones and teeth should remain. Finding them could be difficult, though, because the fragments might be only a couple of inches long, he said.