There is almost nothing worse than the thought of losing your child. But on an unassuming Monday evening, in a small community called Top of the World in Blount County, Tennessee that was exactly the nightmare that two parents were faced with.
Kaydon Leach was one of those lucky kids that were allowed to play outside. Mostly unsupervised as it was a safe, closely nit community. He adored playing with his pets and being in the great outdoors. The perfect companion, a black and white terrier named Chula, joined him on his daily excursions and adventures, until one fateful day.
Kaydon lived life similarly to how most kids in a forest town did. The golden rule was simple – be home before dark. So when Kaydon wasn’t indoors as the light outside was fading to dusk his parents began to get worried. He had never been late before and alarm bells were ringing that something terrible must have happened.
Usually, it requires 24 hours before filing a missing persona report, but his parent couldn’t imagine waiting a whole day to get the word out that they needed help, and they needed it quickly. Kaydon didn’t have a coat and it was getting very cold outside. Knowing time was of the essence they dialed the County Sheriff’s number.
James Lee Berrong, the sheriff, took the news of Kaydon’s disappearance very seriously. He knew just how important it was to follow a warm trail, tomorrow might not be soon enough. The woods were treacherous enough alone, at night they were downright frightening. The alert was put out.
A search and rescue mission was launched minutes after Kaydon’s inconsolable parents finished the call. A military Blackhawk helicopter from the nearby McGhee Tyson Airbase was already lifting into the air as nearly 100 first responders mobilized on the ground. There were 2,000 acres of remote mountainous terrain to cover. They could only search and pray it was enough to find Kaydon if they could.
Amazingly, the search and rescue consisted of the FBI, TBI (Tennessee Bureau of Information), Blount County Sheriff’s Department, Blount County Fire Department, Blount County Search, and Rescue Team, as well as Blount County Chief Deputy Jeff French. They would conduct grid searches around the area to try to find Kaydon. They vowed to search the entire night if that’s what it took to find the 6-year-old boy lost and alone in the mountain woods.
Everyone was briefed on the little boy. He was a small 4 feet tall and only 27kgs. Brown hair and blue eyes and wearing only grey sweatpants, a black t-shirt, and slip-on shoes. This information also went out to the general public. It was, after all, a small town. Everyone was involved. Everyone was invested. And everyone wanted that child back home as soon as possible.
Time was running out and it had already grown cold and dark. Authorities began to worry that if Kaydon wasn’t found soon he would develop a respiratory infection. The search intensified within a half-mile radius around his home. Nothing. Not a trace of the boy and as the night wore on they knew they would have to expand the search, but that could only happen when daylight came again.
Daylight came, but although it was easier to see there was still no sign of a young boy. The search took them to the lake to confirm that the worst hadn’t happened and when they were in the clear they checked out old abandoned building. They were hoping that Kaydon had taken shelter from the cold but they were not that lucky. The day grew old and it would almost be black again when they heard something that made them stand dead still.
It had been 22 agonizing hours since Kaydon went missing. His parents were barely holding themselves together and the sound of a growling beast in the woods did not do much to remedy their high strung emotions. But what choice did they have? They had to follow the sound. It was the only clue they had.
That menacing growl got louder and more powerful the closer they got and then suddenly there stood Chula. The faithful terrier was standing over a sleeping boy, growling at anyone who came close. “The dog growled at the rescuers when they approached Kaydon, so the dog is a protector,” claimed BCSO Chief Deputy Jeff French. But they weren’t out of the woods yet.
Kaydon was slow to wake. His skin was a sickly bluey-purple and cold to the touch. He shivered and shook as the rescuers evaluated him. A whole night with barely any clothes and no shelter had all taken its toll on his young body. Luckily it seemed that Chula had stayed with him and offered what little body heat she could to keep her owner warm.
It turns out that Kaydon hadn’t wandered far. He was less than half a mile from his home. Still, the rescue team wanted to get him to Blount Memorial hospital as soon as possible. It was very possible that Kaydon was suffering from hypothermia. Even so, his parents were so grateful to have him back.
The family released a statement shortly after their son’s return. Nothing was said about his condition or the reason behind his sudden disappearance, but they wanted to give thanks to the selfless rescue team and community during their time of need.
“We’re so thankful to everyone, from local law enforcement agencies to volunteers, who helped us find Kaydon. The amount of support we have received has been tremendous, even from people we don’t even know. We appreciate all our friends and neighbors, and ask for privacy at this time,” wrote Kaydon’s parents.
The news spread quickly that he was safe and everyone seemed relieved, so comments on Facebook say it all, “So glad he was found safe,” wrote one well-wisher on Facebook. Another person commented that they “Had the little guy on my mind since I found out he was lost. Something he can tell his grandkids, thank God.”
As the story spread I was clear that everyone felt that there was another hero to this tale. It made everyone’s heart just a little lighter to know that Kaydon hadn’t been alone in the woods all night. The feisty little dog had protected him and stayed close to her human when he needed her most.
The sheriff was also so thankful when Kaydon was found. He became really emotional when thanking everyone on local TV. “I want to thank all these men and women who spent the last 20 something hours out here in the dark, the cold, and the rain,” he said. “We had the FBI, TBI, Blount County Sheriff’s Department, Blount County Fire Department, Blount County Rescue Squad. It was a team effort and we couldn’t have done it without the help,” he concluded. But there was someone else they had to thank as well.
The sheriff went on to thank deputy officer, Daniel Self, who had held the little dog and made sure she too was okay after the terrible ordeal. He offered her food and water while Kaydon was being assessed. She has become something of a town hero these days. She is definitely the reason he made it through the cold and dark night all alone in the woods.