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3-year-old boy Elijah Marsh is pictured in this handout from Toronto Police

He disappeared in the dead of night, setting off a frantic search that gripped the city and ended with the tragic discovery of his small, lifeless body in the snow.

On one of the coldest nights of the year, when temperatures hovered around -15 C, three-year-old Elijah Marsh made his way out of his grandmother's apartment building wearing nothing but a diaper, a T-shirt and boots. Barely three-feet-tall, he walked out of the parking lot on Neptune Drive unseen by adults who might have stopped him. He went past the route to his daycare, past a school, past a bus stop, all quiet in the darkness of 4 a.m. Then he walked up the path to a home he had never visited at 89 Baycrest Ave., and made his way to the side of the house.

It takes an adult about four minutes to travel this distance on foot. How long Elijah walked or what he was looking for remains a mystery.

He stopped at the side of the house, before he reached the deep snow of the backyard. It's a spot that offers a little shelter from the wind. He spent his last moments alone in a strange place, just 300 metres from home, the lights of the tall apartments across from his grandmother's barely visible above the rooftops. Wedged beside a metal air-conditioning unit and a tiny basement window, Elijah might have felt the warm air emanating from a nearby furnace vent drifting over him as he curled up in the snow.

His grandmother noticed his disappearance around 7:30 a.m. Police immediately launched a massive search that drew hundreds of officers and local volunteers, who combed the neighbourhood near Bathurst Street and Wilson Avenue as helicopters thundered overhead. The city held its breath as events unfolded live on television and many held out hope that the child might be found alive.

Rachel Eizental, a married mother of three who lives at 89 Baycrest Ave., was inside the home at the time. She said her bedroom is on the other side of the house and she didn't hear any cries or knocking through the night. She awoke around 8 a.m. and saw nothing amiss. Her husband took the children to school before 9 a.m. and didn't notice anything either.

"I feel bad but I couldn't do anything. I was sleeping at night. I couldn't know," said Ms. Eizental, clearly shaken by the discovery of the child in her yard.

She didn't know about the search until about 10 a.m., when her sister-in-law phoned. Shortly afterward, she noticed a stranger walking into her yard, and a moment later the man rushed back to the street signalling for help. Six or eight people gathered around the body of a child.

"They carried him to the ambulance," Ms. Eizental said.

Elijah was transported to North York General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

His grandmother emerged from her apartment accompanied by police around midday Thursday. She was on her way to hospital, she said, and was plainly distraught.

"I can't comment," she said.

Hyacinth Challenger, a neighbour who has known Elijah since he was born, said Elijah's mother works as a registered nurse and he often stays overnight with his grandmother. She described the boy as a curious, cheerful presence who would always politely say hello. He was well-behaved and not known to wander off, she added. He's particularly close to his aunts, who are teenagers, Ms. Challenger said, and they usually bring him to daycare on weekday mornings. She suggested he might have been trying to get to his daycare, which is just around the corner.

"It's a shock," Ms. Challenger said. "You never think something like this would happen."

Another neighbour, Fatima Dukuray, said her first thought was that the child had been kidnapped.

"He's a sweet little kid. He's not the type of kid who's just wandering around. He's very shy," Ms. Dukuray said.

At the daycare he attended, an employee said Elijah was a lovely boy from a lovely family. She did not say whether there was any evidence he had visited the daycare that morning.

Ms. Challenger said it would not have been easy for a three-year-old to get outside.

First, Elijah somehow got out of his grandmother's second-floor apartment in the Toronto Community Housing building at 145 Neptune Dr. It's not known if that door was locked. He then walked down a long hallway and opened the door to the stairwell. He descended two flights of dark, dingy stairs to the lobby. Then he pushed open a heavy door that would have locked behind him, where a security camera captured his image as he faced the door to the outside.

Elijah can be seen in an image released by police craning his neck upwards to peer out the window. He then pushed open the final door. Where he went next is unknown.

Hours after Elijah was discovered, relatives gathered at his grandmother's apartment to grieve. Adolescent girls hugged outside, teary-eyed. A woman who answered the door to the apartment said the family would not be commenting. Loud sobs could momentarily be heard from inside the home, including a woman crying "Why?"

Shortly after news of the death was made public, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair said the whole city will grieve with the family.

"There is nothing worse in this business and for all of us than to see the tragic death of a child," he said. "I know this is a terrible tragedy for that family and that community and I believe for the officer responding to that case. I know when I got the call this morning that we had information that this child was missing it was all hands on deck – everybody responding and everybody quite frankly responding with the worst fear. It is terribly cold out there. This is really a tragic set of circumstances. I think every Torontonian will feel the loss. You see the picture of that beautiful little boy and the smile – the video of the child going out into the cold at four o'clock in the morning. It really is a tragic set of circumstances."

With a report from Elizabeth Church