KERSHAW COUNTY — There was something about the I-20 bridges that bothered the searchers.
After walking nearly 90 miles along I-20, from Columbia to Florence, members of a missing-persons search team had not seen one sign that indicated Jake Zeigler, 18, and Ray Pierce, 17, had wrecked on this stretch of interstate as they traveled to Myrtle Beach to watch the sun rise.
Still Monica Caison, founder of Community United Effort (CUE) Center for Missing Persons, was convinced the N.C. teens were involved in a car wreck somewhere along the way to the beach.
Already, I-77 had been ruled out.
But I-20 was different.
I-20 had water, Caison said. I had not felt good about the bridges.
So Sunday afternoon, after the group wrapped up its final leg of the I-20 walking search, Caison organized teams of volunteers to work their way underneath three interstate bridges, including one that crossed the Wateree River near mile marker 96 in Kershaw County.
As volunteers made their way down a ravine, they found a green bumper and flipped it over. A North Carolina license plate with BDD-8844 was attached.
Caison and the search team then knew the boys and their dark green Pontiac G6 would be found beneath the Waterees dark waters.
It was the end of a 15-day search for the young men who had left Sherills Ford, N.C., at 1:30 a.m. Oct. 13 to drive to Myrtle Beach.
There was no indication there had been an accident, Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews said. It was quite a find.
The boys had attended their high schools football game, then gone to a party afterward. They and other party-goers hatched a plan to watch sunrise on the beach, but when it came time to leave for the trip, Zeigler and Pierce were the only two on board.
They took off in Zeiglers newly purchased car. Their families and friends became worried when Pierce did not show up for his job at a restaurant the next day.
Soon, law enforcement became involved, and the intense search for the missing teens began. That search included helicopters, all-terrain vehicles, social media and hundreds of police and volunteers walking miles of interstate and highway to look for signs of Zeiglers Pontiac.
The CUE Center was involved from the beginning.
Founded in 1994 in Wilmington, N.C., the center specializes in finding missing people and helping their families cope with the unknowns. No one who works for the center gets paid, and it has volunteers across the country, Caison said. Some of the volunteers have had missing family members themselves.
Elvia Swainson, mother of missing Richland County 15-year-old Gabrielle Swainson, was among volunteers, spending time at the CUE Centers temporary command posts with the Zeigler and Pierce families during the search, Caison said. The center has become involved in Swainsons case, too.
The centers volunteers work closely with law enforcement. Sometimes, they receive tips on their own. They use their years of experience in missing persons searches.
And they use their gut instincts, Caison said.
In the Zeigler and Pierce search, they knew the teens last known whereabouts came from a cell phone ping on a tower along I-77 in Fairfield County. They were familiar with the common route from North Carolina to Myrtle Beach that takes vacationers down I-77, across rural Fairfield and Kershaw counties to I-20 East.
They were certain the teens had never made it to the beach; after all, they would have sent someone a text or a picture of that sunrise.
It made sense that they had been involved in a wreck, Caison said.
By the seventh day the teens had been missing, Caison told volunteers, Were going to walk the whole road.
They kept their eyes open for the smallest pieces of debris: car parts, cell phones, clothes that could be left behind after a violent accident.
You have to get in the woods, Caison said. You have to get under things. You cant just walk up and down the road and look for broken sticks.
After walking long portions of I-77 and I-20, they had found nothing.
Not until late Sunday afternoon.
No one may ever know why the teens car left the road way, Matthews said. They could have fallen asleep or swerved to avoid a deer.
What is known is that the cars path from the top of the I-20 bridge to the dark waters more than 6 feet under the Wateree left few signs of the accident. There were no skid marks, no debris scattered in the road. The cables and guard rail in the interstates median and in front of the bridge were untouched, Matthews said.
They somehow threaded those cables and the guard rail, he said.
Somehow, the car was launched over a fence, down a ravine and into the river where it landed upside down. An autopsy Monday found the two teens died from asphyxiation due to drowning, Kershaw County Coroner Johnny Fellers said.
Because the water is so dark, even people standing on the bridge above could not see the submerged car, Matthews said.
Matthews said he saw tiny oil spots that bubbled up as a diver with the Camden Fire Department attached the car to tow truck lines Sunday.
That car would have been submerged for who knows how long, he said.
While the Zeigler and Pierce search came to the ending no one hoped for, Caison said their group finds the living, too.
Either way, volunteers consider themselves successful when they bring a missing person home. Families want resolution, Caison said.
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.