“I didn’t think that there was any way that this little boy could’ve survived or let alone anyone could have survived,” said Heile Gantan, an inmate firefighter that was part of the rescue crew.
Gantan, along with a team of nearly a dozen other female inmates as a part of the CAL Fire Conservation Camp Program were tasked with clearing the way for swift water dive crews.
While the women were digging through debris, one of them came across the red shoe 5-year-old Phillip Campbell was said to have been wearing during his disappearance.
“She kept digging through this material and just with a frantic scream she’s like ‘Cap, I found a shoe, I found a shoe’ and everyone pretty much just dropped what they were doing,” said Gantan.
The team dug for two days before stopping the search in a Rainbow creek near Interstate 15. The conditions were the biggest obstacle during the dig as rescuers battled through feet of debris, poison oak, sinking sand and other hazards.
“They stayed in that one area for a while until they got most of that debris, some of them got over their heads working through that stuff to get through there,” said CAL Fire Captain Mark Lopez.
“Something was bad, something was wrong. It wasn’t just your typical job,” said Gantan. ”It was shocking because I didn’t know whether to feel that we accomplished our mission or to feel for that little boy right then and there. I could hear sobs behind me, women really wanting to express the shock that they just witnessed…and just wait until we got to the back of the bus, shut the door and just let it all out.”
The body of Phillip was found just after 11 a.m. on January 26 under a pile of thick brush, San Diego County Sheriff’s spokesperson Ryan Kiem said.
Hours later, a candlelight prayer service was held. Dozens of community members gathered at Calvary Chapel Fallbrook on Industrial Way to light candles and sing. The service was originally slated to be a vigil to help find his body.
"I'm just glad they found him ‘cause it was killing me,” said his father, Timothy. “He was just a good little man. He was going to be a strong little guy.”
“We would like to thank all the people and all the rescuers with all our heart. We know that they did not stop ‘til they found him,” said friend Dianna Burks.
Family said 73-year-old Roland Phillips, who also died in the accident, was a family friend of Phillip and that the two were an inseparable pair, even with seven decades between them. Family members said they will always remember the two together in heaven.
“I can only imagine the fear and everything that they must have been going through. And if there was any two to be together, it was those two,” said one friend.
Phillip was remembered by his grandmother as a wonderful boy who loved pizza and roughhousing.
“We used to wrestle. He liked to learn, he liked to hug,” she said. “He’s in a happier place, a better place…We just miss him, that’s why we’re crying.”
The Campbell family said they will be planning a celebration of life for Phillip.