WATSON — Authorities reported no solid leads as the search for 7-year-old Willow Long, who has been missing a day and a half, wore into the night Monday.
Volunteers were eventually turned away as authorities dealt with several cases of heat exposure among the eager, but untrained, civilians. Only professionally trained emergency responders were expected to search the rural countryside from 8 p.m. last night into today.
“For the safety sake of all civilians, we will just use our emergency service people from this point on,” said Effingham County Sheriff John Monnet. “My fear is we don't want to lose anybody because of this hot weather.”
As of 5 p.m. Monday, it was reported at a press conference that three people were transported to St. Anthony's Memorial Hospital, with seven others treated for heat exposure.
Monnet said the heat has affected the search in other ways.
"We've had several planes and helicopters trying to find Willow," he said. "But the fields are so hot that it's become harder to pinpoint the glow of body heat."
After suspending the search for three hours, volunteers were accepted from 5 to 8 p.m. Later many were sent home as the Watson Civil Center was filled with those wanting to help with the search. Approximately 300 volunteers showed up in the morning, along with more than 1,000 people turning up Monday night, according to Effingham Police Officer Levi Slater.
Many volunteers who were turned away around the 8 p.m. deadline were dissatisfied.
“If it was my family member, I would want the volunteers to keep looking,” said Susan Harmon, who lives just south of Watson.
Harmon and her cousin, Jorri Webster, were turned away at approximately 7 p.m. They were sent home earlier in the day because of the heat. They joined in the search for Long several times Sunday night and Monday morning.
“I would've gone again if they would let us,” said Webster. “I don't agree with this.”
Both women reported there was some confusion, as many volunteers, they believe, were either underutilized or didn't know how to navigate the terrain.
“There were some city folks that got lost in a corn field,” said Harmon. “They kept turning when the corn rows turned instead of walking straight through the field.”
Authorities also cited the use of a “flare plane,” which senses a person's heat, as reason to limit the amount of people in the wilderness.
“To do the flare plane, we need as many people drawn back, so we can do a search of these areas,” said Monnet.
As the search resumed Monday night with only emergency service personnel, Monnet commended the large response from the community.
“This says a lot for our community,” said Monnet. “It's amazing to see everyone get together for one cause.”
Although Monnet reported that many were tired, he remained optimistic about finding Long and wouldn't speculate when the search would transition from a search to a recovery.
“We do this on a day-by-day basis,” said Monnet. “Everyone is tired. The spirit is still there but we won't give up and that's what it takes.”