The boys screamed in the back seat of Susan Vaughan Smith's 1990 Mazda when the carjacker put a gun to their mommy's ribs.
The carjacker demanded she not look at him.
"Shut up," he told her, "or I'll kill you."
She did what he said.
Mrs. Smith drove about 7 miles down a two-lane blacktop until he made her stop in the middle of the road at the entrance to a lake.
He ordered her out of the car.
"Please, just let me get my children," she begged.
"No, I don't have time for that," the gunman said. "But I won't hurt your children."
He pushed her away from the door. Then he sped away.
The last thing Mrs. Smith heard was the cries of her two little boys.
Mrs. Smith said Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months, were secured in their car seats about 9 p.m. Tuesday when she stopped at a quiet intersection in Monarch Mills, a few miles from their home in nearby Union.
Then the gunman jumped in on the passenger side.
"I can't sleep. I can't eat. I can't do anything but think about them," sobbed Mrs. Smith during a news conference Thursday as police kept up the hunt for her sons.
Police are asking the public for help in finding the children and a black male in his 30s or 40s who is between 5 feet 9 inches and 6 feet tall, weighs 175 pounds and was wearing blue jeans, a plaid shirt and a ski cap.
"I plead to the guy . . . to please return our children to us safely and unharmed," the boys' father, David Smith, said Thursday.
About 50 investigators were sifting through tips Thursday from around the nation that the Smiths' burgundy Mazda, the children or both were sighted.
Few of the reports panned out.
"We are interviewing family members, looking for a revenge motive, but so far this looks like a random act," said Union County Sheriff Howard Wells.
The Smiths are separated and have filed for divorce.
Wells said he had questioned the Smiths about the possibility of a custody dispute. But at Thursday's news conference, he said investigators considered the man described by Mrs. Smith to be their suspect.
The children live with their mother.
There was one report Thursday that a man who robbed a convenience store 90 miles northeast of Union in Salisbury, N.C., matched Mrs. Smith's description of the suspect. He fled in a burgundy car, but witnesses didn't report seeing any children, Salisbury police Detective Tom Lowe said.
On Wednesday, police had checked a report that a burgundy car had stopped for gasoline at a convenience store between Union in north-central South Carolina and Charlotte, N.C.
Photos from the store's surveillance cameras weren't clear enough to identify the man.
"It's like they dropped off the face of the Earth," said state police spokesman Hugh Munn.
Meanwhile, dozens of yellow ribbons were hung along Main Street in this town of 10,000, and motorists mounted the sketch of the suspect in their rear windows, along with a picture of the boys.
Some in Union said the man should be hanged immediately if caught.
But many others said the suspect was unimportant.
"I don't give a damn if we never catch that man," said Lt. Jeff Lawson of the sheriff's department, "just so long as we get those kids back."
David Smith, 24, said his wife usually secures the car doors with the power lock.
If she forgets, Michael chimes in, "Lock the doors, Mama."
Tuesday night, she forgot.
_ Information from Knight-Ridder, the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.