After realizing the emaciated child inside was too weak to follow their instructions to get on a chair and reach the chain lock keeping them from getting in, rescue workers simply kicked in the door.
They found the naked, malnourished 4-year-old boy in an overheated apartment where he had been trapped for days with the decomposing body of his mother, a bag of sugar his only source of food. The child weighed only 26 pounds and may have been neglected even before his mother's death, authorities say.
"The only way to describe the little boy was it was like a scene from World War II, from a concentration camp, he was that skinny," Officer Joseph Sauer told the AP. "I mean, you could see all his bones."
His mother, identified Wednesday as Kiana Workman, 38, of Brooklyn , was discovered dead Tuesday on the floor of her bedroom at a tidy, low-rise apartment complex in Union Township. Because the chain lock was on, police said, the boy couldn't get out.
The apartment belongs to Workman's mother, who is recuperating from surgery at a nursing center, said police, who could not track down any other relatives. Adoption offers have poured in from around the world.
Officers were called to the apartment after neighbors complained to the maintenance crew about a terrible stench.
Police quickly pieced together that the boy had been inside the apartment with his mother's body for days. He had put lotion on his mother, police said, leaving behind handprints, in an attempt to help her.
Officer Sylvia Dimenna, who traveled to the hospital and remained there with the boy, said he was very bright and articulate but tired.
"He was quiet," Dimenna said of the boy moments after pulling him from the apartment. "I just said: 'You're OK. You're OK buddy, we're going to take care of you.' He just hugged me, and I took him to the ambulance."
The child's first request after being examined, police said, was a grilled cheese sandwich and a juice.
Dimenna, a 24-year veteran of the force and about to be a grandmother herself, stayed by the boy's side in the hospital, watching Disney videos and trying to comfort him.
"He said he missed his mommy," she said.
The little boy, whose name police have not released, weighed well below the normal 40 or so pounds for a child more than 4 years old, according to Police Director Daniel Zieser.
"It's possible he was improperly cared for before the mother's death; we just don't know yet," Zieser said.
Investigators believe the boy's mother died of natural causes, and do not suspect foul play, as the door was locked from the inside and the windows were secured, Zieser said.
The boy, now in state custody, remained in the hospital where he was being treated for malnourishment and dehydration, police said.
"Physically, he's fine. Whether there are any mental problems later on ... I'm not a child expert," Zieser said.
The boy was not strong enough to open the refrigerator and was unable to open a can of soup. Police said he told them he had been eating from a bag of sugar.
The boy could not say how long his mother had been dead.
Police initially estimated she had been dead five days before the discovery was made, but Zieser said Wednesday it may have been two to three. Nobody had talked to her for about a week.
Autopsy results that would help them better determine the time of death were pending.
Police said they were getting calls from around the world from people offering to adopt the child or donate money or toys.
"It's overwhelming," Zieser said.
"I just hope everything works out for the child," the police director said. "We're just going to take it one step at a time and do the best that we can for the child."
Police said they were trying to find someone in the family capable of taking care of the boy, including a brother of Workman believed to live out West. But he said it would be up to the state's child welfare agency to determine where the child is placed.
Dimenna, who is studying for a masters degree in psychology and would like to work with children once she retires from the police force, said they are incredibly resilient.
"He's very bright, he's very engaging, very articulate, and I really think that, given all the help he's getting, he's really going to do well, and I'm praying for that for him," Dimenna said.