`Frightened' girls home after five days on streets

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AFTER FIVE frantic days, Ian Douglas opened his front door to find his runaway daughter and her friend standing forlornly in the dark.

Emma Douglas, 13, and Rebecca O'Keefe, 12, who sparked a national search when they disappeared from home in Wokingham, Berkshire, on Friday, returned home on Wednesday night. As the two families celebrated their return yesterday, it became evident that the schoolgirls had learnt a harsh lesson in real life. What started off as an "exciting adventure", prompted by a television programme about runaways and a playground boast, had turned into a frightening exploration of London's seedier side.

"They have been in London and I think it frightened the life out of them at what they saw. They were staying in hostels and saw drug abusers and everything, something they have never seen before," said Rebecca's mother, Tracy Langford. "I think they have been left very shaken." As police family protection officers drove them away to a safe house for a full debriefing last night, it was unclear whether the pair had responded to an emotional media appeal by Rebecca's brother, Jake, 10, or had gone home because one of them was unwell.

"They are both very distressed and very disoriented about what has happened. Rebecca is also not very well, she has got a very high temperature," said Mrs Langford. "They were scared to come home but last night she was so distressed about everything that I don't think she really cared about any trouble she may have been in."

Mr Douglas and his wife, Barbara, were overjoyed to have their daughter home. "There was a knock at the door at about 11.30pm. When we answered the door there were Emma and Rebecca standing on the doorstep," Mr Douglas said. "They were both cold but they were all right. We all sat up for a while talking and then we had a good night's sleep."

The two girls, both A-grade students at Holt school near their homes in Berkshire, grabbed their sleeping bags last Friday and set off.

Having watched the programme Staying Lost and thinking the life of a runaway child appeared "glamorous" the duo had boasted to friends that they would be travelling the length of the country from Cornwall to Scotland where Rebecca's father, Derek, lives.

Instead they headed for Brighton, where a frantic search by the family began after Emma withdrew money from a cash machine before heading to the Stratford and Forest Gate area of the capital.

"The plan was just to go away to Brighton for a night but on Saturday they thought they would be in so much trouble they were too scared even to phone," said Mrs Langford. "They went up to London and ended up in the East End staying in homeless shelters. Everyone around them was taking drugs. They were cold, tired and scared. Any ideas they had about it being a glamorous lifestyle have been banished for ever."

t Police revealed last night that another teenage girl had gone missing from nearby Reading. Sarah Britton, 16, left home on 12 November and, apart from a brief phone call to say that she was in London, has not been heard of since.