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Missing girls found: Back to the safety of home after the ordeal that every parent dreads

THE DAY had dawned with fading hopes and escalating fears. The two 10-year-olds, Charlene Lunnon and Lisa, Hoodless had been missing for three days. The hope that they had gone off to London - which bolstered everyone's spirits for the first 24 hours - was beginning to wear threadbare.

In the Lunnon home, the family was waiting for any snippet of news, anything that might offer them some hope, but there was nothing. Charlene's father, Keith Lunnon, admitted that by yesterday morning he was left with only "a tiny bit of hope". His wife, Philomena, feared that her stepdaughter was dead.

Their anguish was underlined by a note they left on a pillow in Charlene's bedroom - decorated with posters of the Spice Girls and Leonardo Di- Caprio. The note, written by her sister, said: "We love you Charlene - always."

At the girls' school, Christ Church in the Hastings suburb of St Leonards, staff had attached a large yellow ribbon to the school gate with a note that read: "This ribbon is a symbol of our prayers for the safe return of Charlene and Lisa."

At Hastings police station, Detective Superintendent Jeremy Paine, of Sussex Police, who was leading the search, was aware that it was not getting anywhere. An experienced officer who has investigated some of the South Coast's most serious crimes, including that of the murder of the Hastings teenager Billie-Jo Jenkins by her foster father in February 1997, he now ordered his officers to begin checking names on the paedophile register.

He said yesterday morning: "I'm very worried. I'm less confident and less hopeful that we are going to find these children alive and well, which makes us all very sad. However, none of us will give up hope. There is still the possibility that they are alive and well out there."

Neither he nor anyone in the two girls' families knew it but they were alive, in a small, drab flat in Eastbourne. There, in a shopping centre on a housing estate 15 miles along the coast, Charlene and Lisa were waking up. Lisa was in tears. The children knew that their parents were looking for them. They had seen their distress on television, they heard the appeals to come home. But they could not.

They also knew of the scale of the search. It was Sussex Police's biggest missing persons search in history. More than 300 police officers, scores of volunteers, and 50 Gurkhas from the Princess of Wales Own Regiment had been sweeping the Hastings area and searching the headlands and parklands close to the girls home.

At the same time, officers from the Metropolitan Police followed up a number of reported sightings of the girls in Bermondsey and Plumstead, in south London. They also checked out suspicions that the girls may have set out for the west London crematorium where Charlene's mother was cremated two years ago.

But it was painstaking police work nearer to their home that made the breakthrough. Officers checking addresses had found a home with, in their statement, "two girls fitting the description of Charlene Lunnon and Lisa Hoodless".

The news came just minutes before noon yesterday. Two young girls had been found and police believed that they had to be Lisa and Charlene; the girls were alive and well. The Lunnons were told of the news moments later. Mr Lunnon said, as he and his family hugged each other: "We are both chuffed."

Yesterday afternoon, he was able to to describe the moment he was reunited with his daughter. Her first thoughts were for her pet hamster, Fluffy. "She ran right up to me and gave me a big hug. I said `I love you'," he said. "She was actually quite chirpy really. She was her usual chatty self, talking about her hamster. She said she missed us very much and I said we missed her very much." Mrs Lunnon added: "I gave her a cuddle, I was just very relieved."

Forensic science experts and scene-of-crime officers were searching the flat in Eastbourne yesterday. It was not clear how long the girls had been there.

Last night, Charlene was taken home in a police car and was seen clutching her favourite soft toy. Later, she came out on to the doorstep dressed in a pink dressing gown to pose for photographers. She did not speak, but Mr Lunnon told reporters she was pleased to be home.

With such masterful understatement, three nights and three days that must have seemed like an eternity to two families on the South Coast were happily concluded.