Mary Gold, Daily Mail: It's ok to leave your children alone as long as you lock the door

By Mary Gold, Daily Mail

Last updated at 8:31 AM on 13th August 2009

She'd gone in the blink of an eye. One moment my three-year-old daughter was playing beside me in the sand on a Sussex beach. The next she was gone.

I was distracted for something like ten seconds by an angry wasp, and when I looked up Katya had disappeared, lost in a crowd of 800 people on Camber Sands on a lovely summer's day.

The first moments of panic are horrendous: bewilderment, mad swivelling of the head, a tightness in the throat, then chest pains and the ghastly realisation that there was water everywhere.

I thought of Madeleine McCann, of vile and loathsome paedophiles and of Lord knows what else.

Where is she? Where is she? Had Katya been snatched? Had she run into the water and was she, by now, already struggling to stay afloat? And if she had simply wandered off, which way did she go and how long would it take to find her?

In front of me was the sea, behind me sand dunes and behind that the road. And on the beach, to the right and left, lots of people. Strangers.

It is every parent's nightmare. But until it happens to you, you can have no concept of how great that nightmare is.

My husband, Harry, had gone to a cash machine so that we could enjoy lunch together, followed by an ice cream afterwards for Katya.

But for a very short while I was alone with her among the dunes.

We adopted Katya two years ago from Russia, where she would never have known the thrill of a day at the seaside.

So this expedition was especially exciting for her and she had looked forward to it for weeks.

And, of course, we both feel an extraordinary duty of care to this special little girl, who has only ever known us as Mummy and Daddy. We watch her religiously every minute of her life. But suddenly she was nowhere in sight.

After building her little sandcastle, she had picked up her bucket to collect pebbles, imitating Makka Pakka, who parents and grandparents will recognise as one of the characters from the BBC children's TV programme In The Night Garden.

Makka Pakka collects and polishes stones. Obviously, Katya had no concept of how far she was drifting away from me in those few vital seconds, but when I looked up and couldn't see her, fear consumed me immediately.

You are supposed to stay calm in these situations and I am naturally laid back.

But in that split second I became a lunatic, running towards the sea screaming 'Katya! Katya!' sprinting back to the picnic blanket, sobbing, then clutching my chest because I was beginning to hyperventilate.

A man wearing a T-shirt saying 'Beach Patrol' arrived and started trying to calm me down.

The poor chap had no chance. He said: 'Don't worry, we'll find her.' And I was screeching: 'But you don't know that!'

I had to describe Katya and what she was wearing. 'Three years old, dark blonde hair in a pony tail, floral bikini bottoms . ..' And that was about it.

As journalists, Harry and I both know what a horrible world we live in.

I thought of poor Sarah Payne, snatched in Sussex by a paedophile in 2000 - a story my husband had covered as a crime reporter.

And, of course, poor Maddie McCann, who was abducted in the Algarve the day after we brought Katya home from Russia in May 2007.

We had watched the news headlines that day, looked at each other and realised how vulnerable small children are. So when the beach patrol Land Rover arrived, I was beside myself, jabbering about Madeleine and howling the place down.

The young driver was justifiably firm with me. He said: 'Talking about Madeleine McCann is not very helpful. You are the only person on this beach who knows what your daughter looks like, so putting your head in your hands will not help anyone. We need you to look to the right and the left. To the right and the left, please!'

I thought at the time he was a bit hard on me, but he was right. I was completely in the basket.

It's amazing how quickly these experts work and when he discovered my husband was not far away, he suggested I call him and tell him the ghastly news.

At that moment, I felt like the world's worst mother and I must admit I thought about Kate McCann. I thought: 'My little girl has been snatched and they will say I shouldn't have looked away for two seconds... I'll get the blame, they will tip it over me, I am useless. .. God help me.'

'It is every parent's nightmare. But until it happens to you, you can have no concept of how great that nightmare is'Men loathe women crying, don't they? And the poor coastguards cop for it all the time.

Thirty children a day go missing on Camber Sands alone, I later discovered. And that's just one beach in the UK, so that adds up to an awful lot of hysterical parents.

But the young man trying to calm me down said he had worked at Camber Sands for nine years without ever losing a child.

So I called Harry and he arrived breathless a few minutes later. They quickly put him in the Land Rover in my place to continue the search.

Quite right, too, because by then I was clutching my chest, having an asthma attack (and I don't have asthma) and ranting about Maddie and Sarah and anything else you could mention.

When I left the Land Rover and Harry got in, the driver and his right-hand man looked at each other as if to say: 'Well, now we might stand a chance.'

The worst moment for Harry was when the driver asked: 'Does your little girl like the water.'

And he knew, of course, what that meant. Harry told me afterwards that when he was walking up to the beach, he thought there might be about 50 people there, but there were hundreds and hundreds and his first thoughts were 'Jaws' and 'Christ help us'.

Danger and desperation. But he was very calm, which is what you need when a child is missing.

Ten agonising minutes later came the flood of relief. It turned out that Katya had wandered for half-a-mile - half-a-mile and she only weighs 2st.

A woman had found her sobbing, saying: 'Mummy, Mummeeeee!' Her saviour called the beach patrol and they drove Harry along the sands to get her.

She had been missing for 25 minutes, but it felt like a lifetime. Harry called me and said: 'We've got her, darling, we've got her.'

I keep replaying in my mind that moment when the Land Rover arrived, with Katya in Harry's arms, her tiny face swollen from crying.

She said: 'You lost me Mummy, and Daddy found me.' And she handed over the bucket of stones she had been collecting. 'I got these for you,' she said.

And everyone on the beach, seeing us reunited, broke into applause. Harry hugged me close and said: 'Better to be born lucky than rich, darling.'

'She had been missing for 25 minutes, but it felt like a lifetime'We have since discovered that there are plenty of devices which help reunite parents and lost children.

These range from simple wristbands with your mobile phone number on, to sophisticated versions which emit a loud beeping noise if the child wanders more than 30ft away.

There are even global tracking systems which show where children are on a hand-held monitor. I shall be investing in all of them.

There are still those who criticise the parents of Madeleine McCann, most of them - in my view - ill-informed.

Cast the first stone and all that . . .

I never have and never will condemn the McCanns. They made one mistake in not locking their holiday flat in the Algarve and they paid an enormous price.

And I admire them for not giving up the search. I know how they feel - though, it must be said, to a far smaller degree.

Our nightmare went on for 25 minutes. Theirs is still with them, two years after their daughter disappeared.

Now that former Scotland Yard officers are on the case, I pray that, like us, their ordeal will have a happy ending.

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