A distraught family and dozens of tired rescue workers had their worst fears realized early Saturday morning when a small body was found inside the remains of a shed fire.
Investigators believe the body is that of 9-year-old Patrick Ryea, the subject of an overnight search, who was last seen about 4 p.m. and some 90 minutes before a series of fires broke out on the R&K Ranch. The ranch is two houses from his home where he lived with his mother, grandparents and siblings. An autopsy is scheduled Monday to confirm the identity of the body.
From the moment fire crews arrived at the scene at 7177 Schulz Drive in South Carson City about 5:30 p.m. Friday, the situation was chaotic. As crews extinguished the shed blaze, two other small fires cropped up nearby. When word came that Patrick was missing, police investigators connected it to the fires, but initially believed that the Seeliger Elementary School third grader had been abducted.
Within an hour that theory was dispelled. Child-size footprints dotted the soil around the fire areas and officials began to suspect that Patrick had started the fires.
"The child is now believed to be the source of the fires - all three of them - and we are acting on the premise that he may be trying to avoid us," said Sheriff Kenny Furlong at the time.
Carson City Search and Rescue personnel reinforced by searchers from surrounding counties and a helicopter scoured a four-mile area around Patrick's home throughout the night. But 14 hours after he was first reported missing, a deputy who had joined the search Saturday morning was walking past the shed when the rising sun showed him the tiny body.
"There was just no way to see him until we got daylight," Furlong said.
Neighbors who had heard of the search for Patrick, or who had been kept awake by the helicopter all night, began to make their way onto Schulz Drive.
Kathy and Dennis Nix were awakened at 5:15 a.m. by an automated "A Child is Missing" phone call that went out to hundreds of homes in the area. Kathy Nix said the recorded message told her about Patrick's disappearance and gave his description. She said she looked around on her property for him before she and her husband decided to drive down the street.
Dennis Nix said on the previous evening he'd seen the smoke from the shed fire and was going to call police, but it went out quickly.
"Do you know what's going on," Kathy Nix asked of a stranger.
When she learned the outcome, she put her hand to her chest. "God, I feel sick," she said.
Vince Hayhurst stood on his porch next door to the R&K Ranch and watched investigators sort through the shed.
"That is sad. I can't imagine that," he said, thinking of Patrick's mother's grief.
Lt. Bob White said the preliminary investigation suggests that Patrick started the fire just inside the door of the 10-by-10-foot shed.
"He set it right at the door and he couldn't get out. There were 10 gallons of gasoline in there, so it really burned hot once it got started," White said.
Carson City Fire Battalion Chief Dan Shirey lamented about the sadness of the situation. He talked of how it's natural for children to be curious of fire and cautioned people against judging this family.
"Playing with matches is more common than what we'd like, as parents, to admit," he said.
"It doesn't make him a bad kid. It's a bad ending. People should not react like it's horrible parenting or a bad household. It's something that happens. People forget sometimes what it was like to be a kid."
• Contact reporter F.T. Norton at email@example.com or 881-1213.