The hunt for April Jones: Searching for a miracle, braced for the worst

The people of Machynlleth are desperate to help find the missing five-year-old. But time is running out...

There were just three hours of daylight left when around 100 volunteers were finally given their orders. All day they had been coming to Machynlleth leisure centre, the suddenly teeming impromptu headquarters of the hunt for five-year-old April Jones, who was by now facing her third desperate night away from home.

As the sun began to drop down over the steep mountainsides that envelop the ancient Welsh capital, they set out in their wellies and waterproofs. Those without local knowledge or specialist outdoor skills were asked to stay away for fear of overwhelming the search in what police described as a vast and hostile environment.

The brief was simple: stay safe and concentrate on the communities they knew – the deserted barns, the sheds and empty buildings of the outlying villages where the child might, just might, be safe and well.

"It's a question of trying to control people's enthusiasm. They are frustrated and want to be out there," explained volunteer co-ordinator Anwen Morris, 31, who had spent much of the past 24 hours fielding well-intentioned offers of help from people who had travelled from as far away as Manchester and Bristol.

Throughout the day helicopters buzzed overhead and mountain rescue teams from across Wales took advantage of the autumn sunshine to scour the boggy hillsides. Yet investigators focused on the deep, fast-flowing waters of the Dyfi, which runs through the town.

Derek Roberts, section manager of HM Coastguard, was overseeing 37 officers who had spent the morning on a four-kilometre stretch of riverbank. "It's a treacherous area, an awful lot of fast-flowing water," said Mr Roberts.

After days of heavy rain the Dyfi was swollen and surrounding fields flooded. At low tide a hovercraft was deployed to search the sand flats of the estuary eight miles downstream while kayaks were used to examine the inaccessible meanders.

Last night, police search teams had brought the hunt closer to the estate where April lived with her family. Locals said the young girl knew the man being questioned by police quite well. It was claimed she had been spotted playing in Mark Bridger's Land Rover Discovery two days before she disappeared.

Police took the unusual decision to name the 46-year-old yesterday and urged anyone who knew anything of his movements between Monday, when April was seen getting into a vehicle, and when he was arrested on Tuesday afternoon to come forward.

Mr Bridger, a former soldier, was well known in the tight-knit community of 2,000 people, having moved to the town about 20 years ago from his home in Surrey. Since then he had fathered five children with a variety of partners but had recently split from his latest girlfriend, a mother-of-two who also lived on the estate. He was a regular in the local pubs and it is believed he had been sleeping rough in his vehicle since the relationship ended last week.

Michelle Price, 31, was a neighbour of the Jones family on the Bryn-y-Gog estate. She was among a group who had spent the afternoon searching around the local golf course. "Everyone knows him or of him," she said. "We would see him going through now and again when he went to sign on."

Rod Bird, 67, a retired plumber, was coming down off Penrallt, a mountain area of dense brambles near a slip road close to where April was last seen. "If she is hidden up there it has been very cold and wet. Without any food, a five-year-old is not going to last very long in those conditions," he said.

Jane Wrigley, 47, and Fiona Moran, 34, both moved to the area to raise their families. "We don't lock our doors, we don't lock our car – we do things that we would not do in Birmingham. Everybody knows everybody. That's what's great," said Ms Moran, a mother-of-one.

"It is really special having that," agreed Ms Wrigley. "I do not want to lose the idea that children can go outside to play with their friends or ride their bikes. It is such an unusual thing to happen not just here but anywhere."