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Sometimes a big city can become a village. That is what Toronto felt like as the story of Elijah Marsh unfolded.

At the start of the work day on Thursday, the boy's face began to pop onto television sets, phones and computer screens. And what a face. With twinkling brown eyes, a toothy smile and the little tufts of curly hair above his ears, he was the picture of innocent childhood. Boy missing, said the headlines. With the weather what it was, everyone knew as soon as they saw those words what it could mean.

Soon dozens of volunteers were converging on his neighbourhood near Bathurst and 401 to help police with their frantic search. People got on their hands and knees to look under cars. Police dogs nosed into snowbanks. A search helicopter rattled overhead. Neighbours told reporters on the scene that some volunteers had come from as far away as Ajax and Scarborough, interrupting their commute to come help.

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Meanwhile, thousands followed events on social media and news channels, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. Then came the news: Elijah had been found. Twitter hashtags switched from #findElijah to #prayforelijah.

Searchers had come across his still form lying between two houses about 300 metres from his front door, vital signs absent. A neighbour told reporters they saw rescuers carry his body into an ambulance, cover him in a blanket and whisk him away.

Holding onto hope, people started talking about how resilient young children can be and recalling stories of how children lost in the winter defied all odds and survived. News crews took up stations outside the hospital where Elijah had been taken. Then, just after 2 p.m., another Twitter bulletin from police: "We regret to announce that 3yr old #Elijah has died."

The news came like a punch to the gut. At least one person on Twitter said she felt physically ill. Social media adopted a new slogan: #RIPElijah. It was hard to fight off thoughts about what he must have gone through as he found himself alone out there with the cold setting in. It was hard not to wonder how this could have happened.

How does a small boy wander out of an apartment, out the front door of the building and into the bitter weather in the pitch dark, wearing only a T-shirt, diaper and snow boots? Was he sleepwalking? Did he really mean to go outside? Was he trying to get somewhere? What happened then? Did he try to find help?

Many parents have had curious or rebellious young children wander off, and felt the heart-gripping panic of that moment. It was impossible to imagine the anguish of the family, yet impossible not to think what they must have gone through as they realized Elijah was missing and might be outside then learned, through that haunting security-camera footage of the boy standing in his boots about to step out into the dark, what had happened.

This was an event beyond words. "Unspeakable," said the mayor. "So sad," people would say to each other, then fall silent.

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By Friday morning, a stack of stuffed toys and flowers had appeared outside Elijah's home in memory. The whole city felt bowed down by the weight of the event, united in loss. That face – so full of mischief and life. He was our future, our boy, our Elijah.

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