“He had a blue lollipop and he was like, ‘Mom I’m going to wash my hands,’” said Rick O’Neill, father of 8-year-old Cian O’Neill, who went missing for several hours on July 4. “I turned my back for a second and my wife asked where he was, and he was gone.”
Cian and his family were enjoying the holiday at Tennessee Avenue beach at about 4:30 p.m. when the boy walked away — without shoes or a shirt in the searing heat — to wash off in nearby showers, his father said. Moments later, the O’Neills grew fearful as they tried to find Cian. “I was panicking,” said his grandmother Carol O’Neill, “as any mother or grandmother would be.”
The family immediately sprang into action. “Everybody got up and started running around,” Rick recounted, “then we went right to one of the kids collecting tickets and he called police. Lifeguards notified beach patrol.”
His wife, Kristina, meanwhile, ran to a nearby home and asked if she could notify the community on social media. Project 11561, a local Facebook page, posted about Cian’s disappearance, and more than 1,000 people shared it to spread the word.
Photos of Cian were circulated among lifeguards, and police also had patrol cars and helicopters searching for him, according to the boy’s aunt, Caryl Ann O’Neill.
“The more time that went by,” his grandmother said, “the more concerned I became.”
Nearly two and a half hours after Cian was reported missing, the family got a call from Joe Brand, a family friend and the coach of the Long Beach High School wrestling team. He told them he had found Cian in Lido Beach, close to four miles east. Brand told the family that he had seen a boy walking alone on the beach and thought something was amiss, so he approached him and asked his name. When Cian answered, Brand recognized his last name. Carol O’Neill is the founder of the Michelle O’Neill Foundation and organizes the annual Michelle O’Neill Volleyball Tournament, in honor of her late daughter — Cain’s aunt.
Brand immediately began making phone calls, and eventually reached a family member.
According to Caryl Ann O’Neill, Brand told the family that when he found Cian, he told him, “I think that helicopter might be looking for you.”
Family members said that an ambulance was sent to check Cian for injuries, and once the E.M.T.s determined that he was healthy, the police reunited him with his family back in the West End.
“There was a major celebration and clapping, like [for] a celebrity,” Caryl Ann said. “He got out of the car and not only hugged his family, but he hugged every person that was standing there.”
Cian told his family that he had counted 21 lifeguard stands on his trek east from Tennessee Avenue beach to Lido Beach. He didn’t ask for help because he was taught not to talk to strangers. His family members said they would now revisit that advice, however.
The O’Neills expressed their gratitude for the show of support from the community. “Everybody stopped what they were doing,” Rick said, and were so concerned that they gave up their plans. I couldn’t believe how many people cared. Everybody was absolutely amazing.”
“It really is such a feel-good story,” Carol said, “because so many people were involved in the search, and so many people were a part of the celebration.”