The community of Sheffield Lake, Ohio, will never forget the moment the body of 4-year-old Sidney Heidrick was pulled from Lake Erie.
“I don’t think anyone is going to get over any of this anytime soon,” Mayor Dennis Bring tells PEOPLE.
Bring, a Sheffield Lake resident since 1958 who is in his fourth year as mayor, says he can’t even remember the last time a tragedy like this struck his community, which is home to 9,000 people.
It’s a grief made more unimaginable by how unlikely it seemed, even minutes before Sidney’s body was recovered.
On Friday, the barefoot little boy, who had autism, walked away from his grandparents’ house on the lake, Bring says.
He was spotted around 4:30 p.m. by a passerby – but the man who called police must have hesitated between the sighting and dialing, Bring says. Officers responded to the scene within 30 seconds, according to Bring, but Sidney was already gone.
By Friday evening, “people were coming from all over” to look for Sidney, scouring the woods and vacant properties, Bring says. Thousands eventually joined in, assisting the FBI, Coast Guard and a myriad of regional agencies in the search efforts.
The search continued into the next day. Bring says he went home at 2:30 a.m. Saturday, and the town’s police chief didn’t head home until 4 a.m.
“I fully expected I’d get a call that night,” Bring says. He dreamed his phone rang with the news that they had found Sidney. But he awoke to discover the search was still ongoing.
The community stayed hopeful, Bring says, telling one another Saturday afternoon to keep their fingers crossed, not knowing their search was minutes from ending.
Sidney’s body was found in Lake Erie around 3:30 p.m. He wasn’t more than 60 feet from shore – not even a quarter of a mile from his grandparents’ home.
Sidney probably entered the water soon after he went missing, Lorain County Coroner Stephen Evans tells PEOPLE, and he died of an apparent drowning.
Wandering is one of the greatest risks to children who have autism, officials with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children tell PEOPLE, and nearly half of children with autism will wander.
Being able to find these children is complicated further by the fact that they may hide from other people or head straight for water, says Robert Lowery, vice president of NCMEC’s missing children division.
Higher-functioning children have been known to travel several miles with the help of public transportation.
Water poses a particular danger. From 2009 to 2011, 91 percent of the deaths of children 14 and younger with autism who wandered was due to accidental drowning, Lowery says, citing the National Autism Association.
“It’s a very frustrating issue,” he says. It’s the worst during “wandering season,” which runs from early spring to fall, when the weather is warm.
The ripples of grief from Sidney’s death touched many. Bring and other officials were visibly emotional at a Saturday news conference soon after Sidney’s body was found.
One dispatcher was particularly overcome by the news. “I said [to her], ‘Some things just happen and there’s nothing you can do,’ ” Bring says.
The police responded as quickly as they could, but it wasn’t enough.
Bring even broke the news to his 5-year-old granddaughter, who asked him if they had found the missing little boy.
“It’s one of those things that you can’t believe,” he says.
Bring says he is grateful for the support of the thousands of searchers who volunteered their time.
A GoFundMe page set up for Sidney’s family has raised more than $32,000 so far.
It’s during times like these that you learn “what kind of community you have,” Bring says.
To aid the search for missing children with autism, the NCMEC has developed protocols for first responders and law enforcement and will dispatch advanced teams around the country to support officials trying to locate a child, Lowery says.
Sidney’s funeral is scheduled for Thursday. His drowning is being treated as an accident, Bring says. Sidney’s family – who have previously declined to speak publicly, and whom PEOPLE has not been able to reach for comment – have been left to grieve privately.
“I just feel terrible for those people,” Bring says. “They’ll never get over it.”