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.
Family members aren't sure what to think.
Daniel, Gage's father, said he believed the children were in the house when it caught fire but was holding out hope they might be found alive.
Lamb was among about six relatives at the home Thursday waiting for news from investigators. She said she had believed all four died in the fire until the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation put out the endangered child alert.
"I think that we changed our thinking when the TBI came in," Lamb said. "We realized that there might be something else."
Around the burned-out home on the family farmstead were many signs of children — a bicycle, a plastic yellow play house and toy car large enough for a child to ride in.
Asked how the elderly couple ended up raising the children, Lamb said, "They needed a home, so they took them."
The state Department of Children's Services investigated the mother of the two children and Daniel's father between 2006 and 2010, said spokesman Brandon Gee, though it wasn't clear whether that led to the children staying with the couple at the farmhouse.
Lamb described Gage, whom the family called "Buster," as "the sweetest little boy."
She said he was a special needs child who followed Leon McClaran everywhere and especially loved to ride with him on the Gator, a small utility vehicle.
She said Chloie would play with one of her young cousins who lived in a neighboring home.
"One day the two of them came up to me in the dirtiest little swimsuits and I said, 'Where have you been?' cause I knew there were no ponds around," Lamb said. "They had been in the cattle trough," she said laughing.
Both the children loved the farm life, in particular the animals that included a white pony, a herd of goats, chickens and dogs. At least one dog died in the fire, misleading investigators early on into thinking its carcass was the body of one of the children.
"It's tragic either way you go. But our hearts are so saddened about these children. Molli and Bubba lived 70 years, but these children were 7 and 9 and it is heartbreaking."
Lamb said authorities warned her at the beginning of the investigation that they may never be certain what happened to the children.
"They will continue to search until they know something," she said.
Associated Press writer Travis Loller contributed to this story from Nashville.