From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Gerry and Kate McCann had been eagerly looking forward to celebrating daughter Madeleine's 4th birthday on May 12. As it turned out, there were pink balloons released that day for Madeleine, but there was nothing festive about the occasion. The balloon release was instead a symbolic plea for the safe return of the youngster, who had apparently been abducted in the night from her room in the Portuguese resort of Praia da Luz nine days before—leaving her parents swamped under a "tidal wave" of devastation, as father Gerry put it. Fighting back tears, Kate had earlier begged, "Please, please, do not hurt her.... Please give our little girl back."

The taking of a child always evokes a shudder of anguish and sympathy. But something about the disappearance of Madeleine triggered a deeper reaction, not just in Portugal and the McCanns' native Britain but throughout the world. Perhaps it was the chillingly sinister nature of the apparent crime, one that tapped into every parent's nightmare. (Although police say they have a suspect, they have yet to identify him.) Or perhaps it was the McCanns' early decision to use the media to keep the case alive in the public's mind. In any event, within days the horror was being played out on cable news and the Internet, and a host of celebrities had stepped forward to pledge money for a reward for Madeleine's safe return. Author J.K. Rowling, American Idol's Simon Cowell and Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson had all chipped in with substantial contributions, with the result that at press time the fund topped $5 million. Soccer star David Beckham did his part by taping a televised appeal.

The incident took place under eerie circumstances. The McCanns, both 38, and both of whom are physicians from the village of Rothley in Leicestershire, England, had been staying at the Ocean Club resort in Portugal's Algarve region with Madeleine and their younger twins, Sean and Amelie, 2. On the evening of May 3, the couple put the kids to bed in the ground-floor apartment and went to a tapas restaurant with friends about 50 yards away. They say they checked on the children every half hour. But when Kate arrived at 10 p.m. she found Madeleine missing. Police speculate that an intruder may have entered through the rear patio doors. Over the next several days a dragnet turned up no sign of the child. Early on, a distraught Kate appeared before news crews clutching Madeleine's pink stuffed toy, looking on as Gerry declared, "Words cannot describe the anguish and concern we are feeling."

Some of the initial British press coverage questioned why the couple had left the children with no babysitter. But friends of the family's said the parents, who had struggled with years of infertility before having their kids through in vitro fertilization, felt safer by not entrusting them to a stranger's care. "They did everything to protect those kids," says Gerry's sister Philomena McCann. "It's not like they'd gone out gallivanting—they were just having something to eat." Indeed, those closest to the McCanns described Kate as a devoted mother who had scaled back to working only a day and a half a week as a general practitioner (Gerry is a cardiologist) so that she could be with her children. "She misses her daughter so much," says Philomena McCann. "She's working to keep her career up but spends the majority of her time with the kids."

The McCanns and Madeleine have a particular love of sports and the outdoors. Madeleine, who had recently started taking tennis lessons, also doted on her younger siblings. "They were desperate to be parents, and when Madeleine came along they were walking on air," says Jon Corner, Amelie's godfather. "She's an amazing, charismatic child. She's one of those kids who just commands attention." As the days dragged on, the ordeal of awaiting word on their daughter clearly took a toll on the couple. During their public appearances Kate looked drawn and seemed almost on the verge of a breakdown. "Kate's always full of life, full of smiles," says Corner. "You can tell she's going through agony. They are trying to be strong. If they're not strong, they can't continue to battle to find her."

They weren't battling alone. Back in Britain friends quickly mobilized to do what they could from afar to aid in the search. When he first heard that Madeleine had gone missing, Corner, who runs a media production company, went to his office and uploaded home-movie footage of Madeleine to British police and major British news outlets. "At least I thought I was doing something practical," he says. Others organized numerous vigils across Britain. Meanwhile in Portugal authorities devoted 130 police officers, as well as hundreds of personnel from the national guard, fire services and maritime police, to the case and blanketed the region with posters of Madeleine. The effort drew some grumbling from local Portuguese journalists, who suggested that such a huge search would not have been mounted for a Portuguese child. "The disappearance of a child is the same, whatever the nationality," replied an inspector. "The resources are justified the same."

The McCanns emphasized how much they appreciated everything being done on their behalf. "[We] will leave no stone unturned in the search for our daughter," said Gerry at one news conference. "We are very grateful for all the efforts and offers of support that we have had from home and from around the world." All the same, supporters of the McCanns wondered whether police could have deployed more officers the first night to search for Madeleine—a charge Portuguese authorities likewise dismissed.

Investigators admitted that they had no idea whether Madeleine was alive or dead. They had received no ransom demand, and they were operating on the possibility that she may have been abducted for the purpose of sexual abuse. At press time police had questioned many people, but only formally declared one man a suspect: a 33-year-old British citizen living near the resort with his mother. Officials released him anyway—and it wasn't clear what connection, if any, he might have with the case. All of which only increased the sense of tension and dread. "We're just praying and praying and praying," says the youngster's grandmother Susan Healy, "and hoping that we'll get Madeleine back."

  • Contributors:
  • Reported by Margaret Roberts/Portugal,
  • Sara Hammel/Lucerne,
  • Ellen Tumposky/London,
  • Courtney Rubin/Rothley.