Beyond the Black Box

If the period from 7 until 10PM on May 3 resembles a physics “black box” in its complete impenetrability, the events of the rest of that night in Praia de Luz are much clearer. The frantic activity in the streets as posses of holidaymakers and villagers searched for the child, the reception area of the Ocean Club where Mark Warner staff, summoned from their homes and beds, attempted to bring some order to the chaos and, most of all, the extraordinary bedlam in apartment 5A, with crowds swirling around the unconscious twins at its heart like some surreal Latin Catholic miracle drama, have been described many times.

Russell O’ Brien, among others, recounted what he saw in the apartment between the disappearance and the early hours of Friday morning as the parents punctuated uncontrollable, indeed hysterical, outbursts of shock with wildly agitated phone calls. As staff, holiday makers, police and even total strangers ran in and out or roamed through the apartment Gerry McCann was to be found “... on the phone to members of his family, curled up on the floor just outside the sliding patio door, sobbing uncontrollably and in between sobs just saying, ‘They’ve taken her,’ or ‘Somebody’s bloody got her’, you know, ‘She’s gone!’ He was incapable of even standing up,just lying on the floor...”

And Fiona Payne said, “Kate and Gerry were ringing anybody under the sun. They were just going between sobbing and feeling helpless and then ringing people and all this frantic activity.... Who do we need to ring? The British Embassy, I think he was trying to get hold of the British Embassy and get somebody who was English speaking and might be able to help. I know he phoned his sister, he was phoning relatives, just telling anybody you know, you’ve got to help us, what can you do, can you think of anything?”

Despite their shock and hysteria the account the parents gave in all their calls was consistent and emphatic. As Kate McCann made clear, when she returned to the apartment to check the children at ten PM she “knew at once” that the child had been taken: an intruder had broken into the apartment after forcing the exterior security shutter and opening the child’s bedroom window.

"Gerry was distraught, breaking his heart," said Madeleine’s aunt Mrs Patricia Cameron, retailing one of these phone conversations later, “the door was lying open, the window in the bedroom and the shutters had been jemmied open. Nothing had been touched in the apartment, no valuables taken, no passports. They think someone must have come in the window and gone out the door with her. It looks as if somebody has either been watching, or they’ve targeted her.”

A friend, Jon Corner, quoted Kate, “blurting out” on the phone that Madeleine had been abducted. “She told me, 'They’ve broken the shutter on the window and taken my little girl.' They had left the apartment locked while they were having their meal, but when they went back the last time they saw the damage - first they saw one of the window shutters had been forced, and then they saw the door was open and the bed was empty - and Madeleine was gone."

And another friend, Jill Renwick, said, "Poor Kate and Gerry don't know where to turn. Madeleine has obviously been taken. She couldn't have gone out on her own and the shutters were forced."

Friends and relatives also described how maddened the parents were already becoming at the police inability to accept that the child had indeed been kidnapped. Despite the clear signs of a break-in, despite Kate’s immediate certainty that abduction had occurred and the evidence she provided that had prompted her to that conclusion, the police refused to accept the obvious. Why, demanded the pair bitterly, had the authorities ignored the information they’d provided and “wasted their time” by making local searches for the child on the assumption that she might have wandered off? The crying need, surely, was to take on board the evidence of a crime and concentrate on pursuing an abductor while there was still time, alerting highway patrols, ports and airports, instead of plodding around looking in wardrobes and poking under beds.

“Their voices were out of control,” recalled Kate’s mother, “and I think it was just blind panic and fear that they couldn't get through to the police or to anybody, to make it clear that Madeleine had been abducted and they were afraid that every minute that was lost was crucial to getting Madeleine back.”

Later, after the investigating officers had finally accepted the likelihood of abduction, the parents’ calls reflected a frightening sense of isolation as well as despair at the latest developments, or rather the lack of them. The police had, said Kate McCann, shown a devastating lack of urgency – “as though I’d reported a missing dog.” And by four thirty in the morning what little police presence and activity there had been had apparently ceased: the parents were, it seemed, on their own. "It was frustrating for Gerry,” said Mrs Cameron again, after yet another phone call, “because between 5am and 7am the police seemed to do nothing, they were standing about."

The McCanns, according to those close to them, were not the sort of people simply to give up without a struggle. Their friends and relatives told the same story of how their calls changed during the night from shocked descriptions of the abduction and frustration at the initial, unsatisfactory, reaction of the police to a determined attempt to make up for the grotesque deficiencies in the Portuguese effort. By sunrise they were calling for outside pressure to be brought to the investigation via their friends in the UK. Patricia Cameron’s husband Sandy said, “Gerry was distraught and spoke at the same time as he cried. He seemed frustrated with the slowness of the searches in Portugal, with the fact that the borders had not been closed, and with the fact that sniffer dogs were not being used. Patricia and I contacted the British Embassy to try and help in this regard."

Jill Renwick had known the couple for over a decade. She spoke to Kate McCann at 7AM and described Kate imploring her for real assistance. "She just said, 'Help me, please help me'. She said, 'We've been searching all night until 4.30AM, and then everybody left us'. At that stage there was only one police officer at the door. They didn't know what to do.” So I phoned GMTV."

M/S Renwick did more, phoning other friends of the parents who in turn contacted anyone they could think of to help. Renwick's sister called a friend in the UK police, another acquaintance attempted to get the assistance of Des Browne, an MP and member of the government. “One friend lives close to the television presenter Kirsty Wark,” said Renwick. "She knocked on her door and said, 'I know you must think I'm mad but my friend's wee girl is missing, can you do anything to help?'” And Renwick later recalled the most celebrated example of “getting some help.” She said, “Gordon Brown's brother John lives in the same street as me. I stopped him in the street the day afterwards and said, 'These are my friends. Do you think you could speak to Gordon about it?' And he said of course.”

And there were the friends at hand who had accompanied them on the holiday. Rachael Oldfield told the UK police later that a friend of hers, James Landale, was a BBC news correspondent and she rang him that night. “Actually,” she said, “I rang his wife Kath because I had her mobile number, to say that Madeleine had gone missing and was there any way that we could get it on the news?” Another of holiday group said, rather vaguely, “I’m not sure who informed Sky News of the event but...I know Kate and Gerry spent a lot of time on the phone ringing people, they were just so, so beside themselves really.”

Thus by breakfast time on May 4 a clear and fateful divergence had already opened up between police and parents, with the conventional host-country investigation being accompanied by the parents’ mobilization of outside political and media power. Perhaps the parents were, in their distress, ignorant of the risks they were running in bringing these notoriously unpredictable, and potentially treacherous forces into play; perhaps they felt they had no choice. In any event, by midday consular and embassy staff were already in frantic consultation with London and reporters and media hounds were scrambling for seats on flights for Faro. Within days this divergence between the two groups would become a chasm.

But why had the gulf opened so quickly and so radically? This was an EU country, after all, not some distant and bandit-ridden equatorial failed state with a police force consisting of half-starved and illiterate militia men, interested only in the financial opportunities that the loss of a foreign child might provide. The well-known narrative we have retailed above describes a clear progression, with the parents reacting throughout the night to the unfolding weaknesses of the police effort, minor at first but worsening, and with the pair moving gradually from hysterical shock to frustration to an eventual grim determination to act independently when they saw that there was no alternative.

And it is just that, a narrative. Convincing, explanatory and dramatically satisfying, like a film or good fiction, rather than the kaleidoscope of real life. No doubt that is why it always forms the basis of the endless articles and documentaries made about the case. But how true is it? Our narrative, after all, that foundation of all research and study of the case, has been provided exclusively by the parents, their friends and family. There is another side, of events seen and reported by those whose professional role it is to organize and make sense of the real-life kaleidoscope every day, and to report it simply and intelligibly, undistorted by shock and fear. What about the police side of the story?