What Happened to Madeleine McCann: A Child Goes Missing, Precious Time Is Wasted and the Nightmare Begins

Watch: Madeleine McCann: A Never-Ending Search 14 Years Later

Gerry McCann checked on the sleeping children at 9:05 p.m., and they were snug in their beds.

The Glasgow native returned to dinner with his wife, Kate McCann, and five fellow vacationers, the group from England in the middle of a 10-day holiday at the seaside resort town of Praia da Luz—"beach of light"—in southern Portugal. The various members of the party, enjoying wine and food at the Ocean Club's poolside tapas restaurant, would get up periodically to make the 100-yard walk to look in on their kids back in their respective apartments. 

It was Kate's turn to go at 9:30 p.m., but Dr. Matthew Oldfield, rising at the same time to check on his daughter Grace, offered to look in on the McCann children. He reported back to the group that all was well.

Shortly after 10 p.m., Kate, a general practitioner who had worked part-time since becoming a mother of three, entered apartment 5A through the open back patio door and headed toward the bedroom where she and Gerry had left 3-year-old Madeleine in her Eeyore pajamas and 2-year-old twins Sean and Amelie fast asleep. As she has remembered in her multiple retellings of that night, Kate felt that the bedroom door she'd left slightly ajar was more open than before. Pulling the door toward her, it slammed, propelled by a breeze coming through the bedroom window that wasn't supposed to be open. 

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A closer look revealed that Sean and Amelie were snoozing away in their cots, but the bed where she had tucked in Madeleine with her pink blanket and Cuddle Cat barely two hours beforehand was empty.

"I couldn't quite make her out in the dark," Kate wrote in her 2011 book Madeleine (all proceeds from which went to Madeleine's Fund: Leaving No Stone Unturned, which has financed search efforts). "I remember looking at it and looking at it for what was probably only a few seconds, though it felt like much longer."

Kate frantically searched the rest of the apartment, including in the closets and under the beds, calling for Madeleine, then ran to the restaurant. She recalled yelling, "Madeleine's gone! Someone's taken her!"

According to journalist Danny Collins' 2008 book Vanished: The Truth About the Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, a hotel babysitter named Charlotte Pennington (the resort offered complimentary child care night and day) who was watching another family's kids in a nearby room heard the cries and went over to 5A. Pennington remembered the distraught mom screaming, "They've taken her! They've taken her!"

Within minutes the dinner party spread out all over the resort to look for the child, who was due to turn 4 on May 12, and resort management was alerted of the situation. In her book, Kate recalled the staff enacting "missing child search protocol" by 10:30 p.m. When police still hadn't arrived five minutes later, Gerry asked Matt if he would go to the reception desk to make sure that they'd called authorities.

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Though it would seem as if a missing child would be a 10-alarm fire, two officers from the Guarda Nacional Republicana—a military force, but they serve as the equivalent of a U.S. city police force or highway patrol—didn't show up until around 11:10 p.m. And their guess was that Madeleine had wandered off, perhaps in search of her parents, into the streets crisscrossing the resort. 

The GNR did not immediately cordon off the area around 5A, as protocol often dictates for a crime scene, according to multiple witness accounts. So as word got around that a little girl was missing, guests and curious looky-loos flocked outside (and inside) apartment 5A—the back of which faced the pool and the tapas restaurant—smoking cigarettes and walking right up to the bedroom window, which soon became a hotbed of fingerprints and random DNA.

According to Collins (who in his book thanked police and media contacts, as well as Interpol for aiding in his investigation), as one man ran his fingers over the sill, declaring, "Nothing to be seen here," a British freelance reporter overheard and fired back, "Well, there bloody well wouldn't be now, would there?" 

Fellow vacationers did, however, help search for Madeleine until dawn, small groups walking the streets, combing the beach and peering into rubbish bins and anywhere else a small child could have ended up, on her own or by force.

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