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Craven County, North Carolina CNN  — 

“Momma, Momma.”

Chocowinity, North Carolina, EMS Capt. Shane Grier remembers hearing those words “clear as day.”

It was the voice of 3-year-old Casey Hathaway coming from the woods. The boy had been missing for 55 hours.

Grier was exhausted. He had been working in shifts on the massive search for Casey who had wandered into the woods from his great-grandmother’s North Carolina home.

Capt. Shane Grier

A woman had called in a tip that she heard a voice coming from a thick swath of pine trees near her home.

Grier and another emergency responder drove to the location. It was pitch dark. They stood on the hoods of their cars and listened. That’s when they heard the cries from Casey.

“We got about 65 meters in,” Grier told CNN this week, “we came upon him in a heavily vegetated area. The thorns were as big as my thumb. I don’t know how he got in there.”

Grier said Casey was on his knees, hunched over, his coat zipped up. He was wet, cold. He had scratches on his face, but he was alive.

After Casey went missing on January 22, many people had begun to fear the worst, including Craven County Sheriff Chip Hughes, who led the massive three-day search effort.

“We started looking at the percentages of what are the chances a three-year-old, in this terrain, with wildlife like bears and coyotes, can survive this. The odds were against us,” says Hughes.

Hundreds of people looked for Casey, through the freezing cold and rain. Some members of law enforcement worked without pay because of the partial federal government shutdown at the time.

In all, more than 600 volunteers contributed to the effort, believing “Casey belongs to all of us,” says Hughes.

Hughes says he will never forget the call when he learned Casey was OK.

“I looked at my wife and both of us teared up. She said, ‘you guys did it.’”

It was an emotional relief for Hughes, because he had made a promise to Casey’s parents that he would never give up looking for their son.

“When the rescue (vehicle) pulled up and I saw this 25-pound 3-year-old, with his big brown eyes open … it was tear-jerking. This is when we made good on the promise.”

Craven County Sheriff Chip Hughes

In a news conference, Casey’s family said their son was doing well and “he wanted to watch Netflix.”

His aunt told authorities that Casey claimed to have made a friend while he was lost in the woods: a bear.

Authorities say there’s no telling what Casey saw during the time he was missing.

News of his search and rescue made national headlines. Hughes received dozens of cards from school aged children, thanking him for “protecting them.” Some of those cards now sit on his desk as a reminder of “why we do this job, because we don’t always have good days,” says Hughes.

Messages for Hughes from school-aged children.

Meanwhile, Grier has a different reminder from the event he calls “a miracle.”

It’s a picture of him next to Casey in a hospital bed. The Hathaway family gave it to him as a gift. It now has a permanent spot in his office.

“I think everybody at some point in time was expecting a bad ending from this, and for the ending to be so good … a little boy is home because of the efforts everybody did here,” Grier said.

CNN’s Bonney Kapp contributed to this report.