Just as hope for Charlene Lunnon and Lisa Hoodless had faded, police announced that they had discovered them in Eastbourne, 15 miles from their homes in Hastings, East Sussex.
The girls were said to be well, though police said they had been "through an ordeal". A man was last night being questioned over possible abduction.
Charlene, 10, gave her father a big hug when they were reunited. Keith Lunnon, a drugs counsellor, said: "The atmosphere in our house has turned from tension to happiness in a matter of minutes."
Lisa's parents did not comment, but her grandparents were thrilled. Bernard Deering, 52, said it was "perfect". "When I see her I am going to give her a bloody great cuddle," he said. His wife, Patricia, 56, clutching two bottles of champagne, added: "I will never let her out of my sight again. We were really beginning to despair."
Exactly what happened to the girls during their time away was unclear last night, but there were strong suggestions that they were held against their will for at least part of that time.
Mr Lunnon said his daughter had been able to watch the appeals he and his wife had been making on her behalf. She had told him that when the girls woke up yesterday, Lisa had been crying. "She saw us on the television," he said. "She knew exactly the scale of the search."
Despite her ordeal, he said his daughter had been remarkably well. "She was quite chirpy ... her usual chatty self, talking about her hamster."
He declined to give further details about the children's time away from home, which sparked the biggest search in the history of the Sussex force.
Detective Superintendent Jeremy Paine, who headed the investigation, said it was going to be a "long process of gathering evidence". The children will undergo medical checks and officers will talk to them over the next few days to establish what happened.
Det Supt Paine said: "I am ecstatic. Looking back at this morning, we were getting despondent, and I don't think any of us went to bed last night without that sinking feeling."
Charlene and Lisa vanished as they walked the short distance to school from their homes in St Leonards, East Sussex, on Tuesday morning.
The girls' school, Christ Church, had been criticised for not telling their parents when they failed to arrive for lessons. The alarm was raised onlywhen they failed to arrive home that evening. Sussex County Council said it would renew its procedures, but yesterday the school was celebrating the girls' return. Anne Hanney, the head teacher, said: "We are overjoyed."Reuse content