STANLEY, N.C. (AP) — For Jordan Arwood, the images return in waves. A wall of dirt collapsing and burying his 6-year-old daughter and her 7-year-old cousin in a pit he was working on. Rescue workers frantically pulling the children from thick red clay. Their lifeless bodies placed in the back of an ambulance.
"When she came out of the hole she was so cold," Arwood, of Stanley, N.C., told The Associated Press in his first news media interview. "I just wanted for her to be warm. I just wanted to put my arms around her and tell her she would be safe....I promised her I'd keep her safe. I promised them I'd keep them safe and warm. I broke that promise."
The 31-year-old Arwood was operating a backhoe Sunday night in the pit when the walls caved in on the children. The bodies of the two young cousins, Chloe Jade Arwood and James Levi Caldwell, were dug out Monday morning.
Arwood is the girl's father. His parents, Nancy and Ken Caldwell, had adopted the boy, his twin sister Jazmin and 9-year-old brother Josiah. Arwood lives next to his parents and the pit was on his property.
Arwood told the AP he reached out to save the children but they were just outside his grasp. He said he dug faster and faster trying to rescue them until he couldn't breathe.
"When the wall came down, I kept grabbing what was in front of me — grabbing enough dirt, grabbing boulders. ... I wasn't going to stop until I pulled them out. But I couldn't save them," he said, sobbing.
He paused for a moment.
"I wish it was me,' he said.
Lincoln County Sheriff's Office Detective Lt. Tim Johnson said investigators were interviewing family members and neighbors about the case. When they finished, they planned to present their findings to the district attorney's office.
Investigators described the pit as 20 feet by 20 feet, with a sloped entrance leading down to the 24-foot bottom. The children were at the bottom of the pit retrieving a child-sized pickaxe when the walls fell in on them. No permits had been issued for Arwood to dig on the site.
Johnson said investigators still don't know why Arwood was digging the hole and that people have speculated that the pit was everything from a "doomsday bunker" to an underground structure for "illegal activity," such as growing marijuana.
Sheriff's deputies on Monday removed guns and a marijuana plant from Arwood's mobile home. Arwood is a felon who is not allowed to have guns. He was convicted in 2003 for possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell.
Dion Burleson, spokesman for the Denver Fire Department, which responded to collapse, said crews filled in the pit Monday.
Arwood said he was building a rammed earth home, an ancient building method where dirt is used to shape the foundation. Arwood said he had been digging for three months. He said he was building it for his family's future - to give them a safe, affordable eco-friendly home that would last a generation. And he said there was nothing strange about it and that people have been building rammed earth homes since the beginning of civilization. He said he researched the permits and didn't believe he needed one at that stage of construction.
He also said he didn't expect the walls to collapse. And late Tuesday afternoon, Arwood walked to the site of the pit and pointed to the spot where his daughter and James had been buried under the dirt.
Reaching down, he sifted the dirt between the fingers of his right hand. Then he punched the soil in frustration.
Arwood said he never allowed the children in the construction site. But they were children who loved to play in a big backyard, and sometimes they would sneak in and try to help without warning. But when he spotted them, Arwood said he would immediately kick them out.
As the walls fell in, he recalled, the children were running to get away. He was within inches of grabbing his daughter's hand. But she disappeared under a surge of dirt. Now he's haunted by the memories.
"I want to wake up. I just want to wake up," he said.
Recalling the children, his eyes brighten. They were always running around together — the best of friends.
Family, he says, is the most important thing to him. He has a broken femur from a car accident, and has spent a lot of time at home in the last two years raising Chloe, James and their siblings. He taught his daughter and James how to ride four-wheelers in the backyard. He taught Chloe how to hunt.
"This was one side of Chloe: hunting with daddy. She begged me every day afterschool and put on coffee at 4 a.m. to hunt before school. She loved her cammo (camouflage) and providing food for her family, be it gardening farming or hunting," he said, adding that she could hit milk jugs at 200 yards. "I taught her to do so much because I couldn't do it without her after my accident that broke my femur and destroyed my body and left me helpless."
Arwood was like a father to James.
"How many times did I have to tell him to brush his teeth? I'll never be able to tell him again, 'Go brush your teeth, brush your hair.' That was the first thing he did in the morning," he said.
On Tuesday, friends and family in this tight-knit rural community came by to offer their condolences. They brought food to the family. Before Sunday's accident, the house was usually filled with laughter. Now it was somber.
Ken Caldwell sat on a couch, surrounded by photos of his grandchildren. Nearby was a white karate suit. James is going to be buried in it. He was just a few days shy of taking a test for his orange belt.
Caldwell, who worked 34 years in a steel fabrication plant, recalled reading Tom Swift books every night to James, a bright, energetic first-grader with a big smile.
He loved his grandmother, who would tuck him in every night. "After she tucked him in, he would stick out his leg out of the covers and say, "Grandma, my foot's not covered.'"
Chloe was always running around the house and jumping in his lap.
"She's so beautiful," he said.
When he saw the children's bodies in the ambulance, he said he placed his hands on them and asked God to "bring them back."
While his prayers went unanswered, his faith is still strong — and he's going to use it to carry him through the tough times.
"You have to trust the Lord," he said. "I'm just grateful I had time to spend with my grandkids."