Two cousins, ages 9 and 11, were buried in 5 feet of snow for 7 hours
NEW: "I was thinking that me and my cousin we're going to die," boy says
NEW: Air pockets formed a dome within the snow for oxygen
NEW: "I just felt led to dig," police officer says
The two boys who were discovered early Thanksgiving morning buried under 5 feet of snow – and the officer with a hunch who rescued them – recounted their harrowing tale at a hospital news conference Friday.
Cousins Elijah Martinez, 11, and Jason Rivera, 9, were building a snow fort about 7 p.m. Wednesday when a snow plow came through a parking lot near their homes in Newburgh, New York, and inadvertently piled a mountain of the white stuff onto the snowbank in which they were playing.
Newburgh, about 60 miles north of New York City, got more than 6 inches of snow earlier in the day.
“We started screaming and telling him to stop,” Elijah said. “But he didn’t hear us.”
Their fort collapsed on top of them, leaving them buried for the next seven hours.
Not reported missing
Police said there was no way the plow operator could known that the boys were there, and he wasn’t the only one.
The boys’ relatives had no idea, either – of their whereabouts or that they were in peril. They weren’t even reported missing until about midnight, according to police, after relatives grew concerned when they failed to come home at 10 p.m.
The families first searched the area themselves. “We heard them calling for us,” Elijah said.
But the boys’ replies went unheard, so the police were called.
Nine officers and a police dog canvassed the area into the early hours of Thanksgiving morning, when they learned that the pair had been building a fort in the parking lot across the street.
‘I just felt led to dig’
Newburgh police officer Brandon Rola approached one snowbank among several in the area and discovered a half-buried shovel that was “kind of sticking out of the pile,” he said.
“I pulled the shovel out, and I definitely didn’t put it together then but just kind of decided to start digging,” Rola said on CNN’s “The Lead” on Friday.
He said that even though he turned up nothing after four or five shovels full of snow, he kept digging into the 8-foot-tall pile.
“I just felt led to dig,” he said.
Whether gut instinct or just luck, it paid off.
“Around the ninth, 10th shovel full, I hit a child’s boot,” he said.
A frantic rescue ensued. But as he summoned his colleagues, it dawned on him: “We only had the one shovel that I pulled out of the pile.”
No matter. They improvised.
“Officers were running around flagging down trucks, trying to see if anyone in the area had a shovel,” he said. “We were using (EMTs’) back braces to try to remove snow. People were clawing at it. Eventually, between good Samaritans, truck drivers coming by with shovels in their beds, we were able to get a decent amount of shovels.”
Finally, at 2:10 a.m., the boys were pulled from the frigid heap. Rola said it took about 10 minutes to get the first child out and 15 to get the second.
‘We’re going to die’
“I was thinking that me and my cousin we’re going to die,” Jason said. “Me too,” added Elijah.
But despite the boys’ youth – or perhaps because of it – the decisions and moves they made over the course of seven hours probably saved their lives.
“We motivated each other to not go to sleep, keep yelling, keep moving our bodies,” Elijah told CNN affiliate WCBS. “Because I knew if we would’ve fallen asleep, we probably wouldn’t have woke up because we would be so cold, frozen probably.”
Elijah instructed Jason – who had lost his hat and gloves – to stick his hands inside Elijah’s face mask for warmth, and both were aided by air pockets formed by the way the snow fell within the collapsed fort.
“They were probably in about 5 feet of snow,” police Sgt. Aaron Weaver told WCBS. “But however it fell, there was, like, a dome around their heads, so there was air in there, like space for them.”
Although the boys worked in perfect concert to survive their brush with tragedy, they had different opinions on what their next move would be.
When asked what they wanted to do as soon as they got home, both gave answers at the same time – and with equal conviction:
“Eat!” said Jason.
“Go to Disney World!” said Elijah.