In an instant, it seemed, Maddox Ritch had disappeared.
The 6-year-old boy, who has autism, was walking with his father and another person Saturday at Rankin Lake Park in Gastonia, near Charlotte, North Carolina, when he took off running, his parents later told police. Gastonia spokeswoman Rachel Bagley told ABC affiliate WSOC that the two adults "started running after him, they lost sight of him, and no one has seen him ever since."
For the third consecutive day Monday, more than two dozen local, state and federal law enforcement personnel - with help from members of the community - continued scouring more than 1,400 acres in and around the park, a popular spot for picnicking, hiking and water sports. The FBI is assisting in the investigation, as search-and-rescue crews and K-9 units comb the grounds, police helicopters search from the sky and divers look in the nearby lake, authorities said.
"We're working around the clock with one goal in mind - and that goal is to find Maddox and to bring him home safely," Gastonia Police Chief Robert Helton said during a news conference over the weekend, according to CBS affiliate WBTV.
Maddox, who is nonverbal, has blond hair, blue eyes and is 4 feet tall, according to a missing person's poster from the FBI. He was last seen wearing an orange T-shirt that read, "I am the man," the poster said.
Helton said law enforcement agencies have been searching "nonstop" since the boy was reported missing Saturday, "checking every area, every trail, every corner."
Then the police chief pleaded with the public for help.
"If you were at Rankin Lake yesterday and saw Maddox or took video or photos of your outing at Rankin Lake Park, we would ask that you call us," Helton said Sunday, according to WBTV. "We know a lot of people were in the park yesterday and we have spoken to many of those people, but we have not spoken to everyone, and we would like to. No piece of information is too small. Something you may think is insignificant could be helpful to our case."
Help the #FBI & @GPDNC#FindMaddox Ritch who was last seen at Rankin Lake Park in Gastonia, NC, on September 22, 2018, wearing an orange t-shirt with writing "I am the man" & black shorts. Call the tip line at 704-869-1075 if you have any information to help. pic.twitter.com/tM2ZEYoc0o— FBI Charlotte (@FBICharlotte) September 24, 2018
He added: "If you live near the park, we are asking that you search the areas around your homes for any clues to find Maddox. If you have a shed, a barn, a wooded area, please go take a look and call us immediately if you find anything out of the ordinary."
Police did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post.
FBI Special Agent Jason Kaplan said during the news conference Sunday that "unfortunately, it's not uncommon for special-needs children, or a boy who has autism or a girl who has autism, to get lost or be missing, so it's something we deal with unfortunately with some frequency."
He told reporters that investigators are considering all possibilities, including abduction, according to WBTV.
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