The nation's worst fear as it waited to hear the fate of missing 10–year-old schoolgirls Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells appeared to have become tragic reality yesterday after two bodies were discovered just a few miles from where the girls disappeared.
Almost two weeks after the girls from the Cambridgeshire town of Soham were last seen alive, forensic experts were examining remains in a fenland nature reserve near RAF Lakenheath at Mildenhall in Suffolk. They were found by a man out walking with friends.
The discovery came just five hours after police confirmed that they had arrested two people on suspicion of abducting and murdering the girls. They were understood to be Ian Huntley, 28, a caretaker, and Maxine Carr, 25, a former teaching assistant at the girls' school. Though police had not named them at press time, sources confirmed their identities.
The arrests came after the discovery of what detectives described as items of "significant interest'' in searches at their home and in the grounds of Soham Village College, where Mr Huntley works.
Searches continued yesterday at the home of Mr Huntley's parents, in the nearby village of Littleport.
A police search of the 40-acre college grounds also continued, but the focus of attention shifted to an area close to the Suffolk village of Brandon, where the two sets of remains were found.
A police spokeswoman said forensic teams were examining an area beside a track in an area of scrub and woodland behind Wangford Church, an isolated medieval church within half a mile of RAF Lakenheath, home the US Airforce 48th Fighter Wing.
A statement said simply: "Police are now making urgent inquiries to establish the identities of the bodies and to determine if there are any suspicious circumstances.
"The family of Jessica and Holly have been informed of this development. Until an extremely detailed examination of the scene has been completed, we cannot speculate as to the identity."
The children's parents, Kevin and Nicola Wells and Leslie and Sharon Chapman, were at home yesterday waiting to hear the outcome of the forensic examination of the scene and the remains. They made no comment.
News of the arrests and discovery of the bodies highlighted a traumatic day for the two families and the close-knit community of their Cambridgeshire market town. With the arrests, many were forced to concede what they had refused to accept – that the girls might not be coming home.
The girls' headteacher, Geoff Fisher, 54, spoke eloquently for many, breaking down in tears as he said: "I'm devastated. I have been clinging for the past two weeks to the hope that Jessica and Holly would be found alive, clinging to the hope that they would be starting school in September in their final year at St Andrew's.
"We have been through the rollercoaster of the past fortnight and the news this morning was just devastating. I felt totally numb.''
College principal Howard Gilbert added: "I was distressed, shaking. We have all been hoping for a happy ending.''
Alan Ashton, Soham's Methodist minister, who has been comforting the families, said: "To attempt to describe how the parents will be feeling would be an affront to them. It is the worst scenario of all the possible scenarios.''
Shops, pubs and restaurants closed for business in Soham yesterday evening.
The busiest place in the town last night was inside and outside St Andrew's Parish Church, where locals came to offer prayers for Holly and Jessica and to lay flowers at the foot of the church tower.
Darren Driver, 21, in common with many other townsfolk, laid a bouquet of flowers and photographs of the girls cut out from a newspaper in an expression of sorrow.
''I just thought I would show how I feel deep down,'' said Mr Driver. "Myself and the whole community feel for the parents. It must be terrible for them and for what those two girls have gone through.''