VALRICO — Juan Martinez walked to the front of the mound of teddy bears Saturday night and placed a car seat with a photo of his 2-year-old son, Luis, on top of the heap.
Candlelight illuminated the tears of neighbors and volunteers who had searched for little Luis Martinez since he disappeared in the Silver Lane Mobile Home Park on Friday.
Their efforts ended in anguished wails Saturday afternoon when Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee announced that Luis' body was found at the bottom of an underground septic tank less than 50 yards from his family's mobile home. He apparently had stepped through an 11- by 13-inch opening in the tank that was concealed by grass.
People who had just met hours before clutched each other as Gee spoke, their hands trembling and mouths quivering.
"He was just a baby," said a tearful Brenda Heisler, 62, of Seffner. "We had our chance to live. He didn't."
Gee said Luis was found about 2 p.m. after someone who lives in the area called authorities and suggested that they check the septic tank. The tank is near a neighbor's home, where Luis was last seen Friday afternoon.
Sheriff's Col. Greg Brown could not say if Luis was being supervised by an adult when he disappeared.
The boy's mother, Rosalina Ramirez, 20, said in an interview Saturday evening that she left Luis with a neighbor and thought the neighbor was looking after him while she was at home with her 2-month-old. When Juan Martinez, 30, arrived home and asked where Luis was, they went to the neighbor and realized he was missing.
"Oh my God, my son,'' Ramirez moaned in Spanish between sobs. Two women rubbed her shoulders and hugged her, trying to console her after the candlelight vigil.
"Why my son? He was a beautiful child. He was very special. He wasn't afraid of anything.''
Martinez said that he and Ramirez moved here from their native Mexico. They moved into their present home three years ago.
Luis "was a very happy boy'' who loved to ride his tricycle, Martinez said in Spanish.
"I was still holding out hope when they told me they had found him,'' Martinez said tearfully. "I wanted them to find him so bad.''
Dewayne Bingham Sr., owner of Bingham On Site Sewers Inc. in Dover, said he got a call between 12:30 and 1 p.m. and sent two of his employees to the scene. He joined them when the boy's body was found.
"No one thought he was in there," he said. "The ground wasn't even disturbed. The hole was so small … you almost had to get right on top of it to see it."
Searchers had come across the 11- by 13-inch hole the night before, but passed it by, thinking it was too small for anyone to fit into, he said.
But when the septic technicians drained tons of sludge out of the tank, they found the toddler and a toy car.
"He probably had it in his hand when he fell," said Bingham, 67.
They also found the tank's cover at the bottom. "It looked like it'd been there for a while," Bingham said.
The septic tank appeared to be still in use, Bingham said, hooked up to at least one mobile home. "That tank hadn't been cleaned out in 10, 15 years, I'd say," said Bingham, who said it should be done at least every three to five years.
"These lids need to be secured properly," he said, explaining they should be nearly 80 pounds, heavy enough that they're nearly impossible to dislodge accidentally. "It's just a freak, sad thing," he said. "I just … I had no idea we would find anything down there."
Gee said that deputies were told that someone had reported the open septic tank to the property manager about a month ago, when the tank overflowed. He said the Sheriff's Office will be investigating that claim.
Any possible issues of negligence or code violations won't be addressed until the medical examiner's report is completed, sheriff's spokesman J.D. Callaway said. Officials of the Valrico-based company that owns the property could not be reached Saturday.
At one point, so many volunteers — about 400 — gathered that some had to be turned away because there were no more sheriff's deputies to guide them.
Nearly 100 people came to the memorial coordinated by neighbors Brenda Hisler and Tony Abramson. The crowd said the Lord's Prayer, sang Amazing Grace, and consoled the couple as they wept near the yard where their son was found.
Many offered hugs, some offered money and one woman even donated a burial plot in a local cemetery, said Ivan Echevarria, who was translating for Juan Martinez.
Nitza Rivera and Blanca Morales went to the couple's mobile home before the vigil and prayed with the couple.
"It just shows you that in the society we live in today there are still some good people in the world," Rivera said.
She and Morales live in the area and helped with the search Friday and Saturday.
"We didn't know them but something in his story just touched our hearts and we had to help," Rivera said.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report, which includes information from Bay News 9. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.