It was the story that captured the world and terrified parents across the globe—two years ago, 3-year-old Madeleine McCann seemed to vanish into thin air. The McCann family, including parents Gerry and Kate and 2-year-old twins Sean and Amelie, were on vacation in Praia da Luz, Portugal. The McCanns were traveling with three other families, and some nights the parents would put their children to bed and meet for dinner at the resort's tapas restaurant, less than 100 yards away from their rooms. The adults took turns checking on their children every half hour. On the fifth night, Kate went to check on her children, only to discover Madeleine was missing.
The day after Madeleine's disappearance, the McCanns held their first press conference. It was the beginning of what would become an international media sensation. After four months of searching turned up nothing, the McCanns were named as suspects, or, as the Portuguese call it, "arguidos."
Once the McCanns came under suspicion, they decided to leave Portugal and return to their home north of England. "It's heartbreaking to return to the UK without Madeleine," Gerry told the press. "It does not mean we're giving up our search for her. Despite there being so much we wish to say, we are unable to do so except to say that we have played no part in the disappearance of our lovely daughter Madeleine."
In July 2008, the McCanns were officially cleared as suspects.
It's been two years since Madeleine disappeared, and the McCanns are joining Oprah for their first interview in the United States. Though a good amount of time has passed, Kate says their search is as determined as ever. "We're still going, and we're working really hard," she says. "We have our better days and our not-so-good days, but we're persevering and we're pressing on."
Anniversaries aren't necessarily harder, Kate says, but they are a reminder of just how much they've missed. "I can't believe it's been two years since I've seen Madeleine—that she's had two years without being with her family where she should be," she says.
Despite the amount of time since they last saw their daughter, the McCanns say they believe Madeleine is still alive. "There's absolutely no reason to believe that she's not alive," Gerry says. "I think that's the key thing."
Kate says mother's intuition is telling her that her daughter is out there. "I do feel that the connection is there," she says. "Now whether that's just because I'm her mother and there will always be that bond, I don't know. But I don't feel that she's that far away."
When your daughter is missing, it's not only major questions that you worry about, Kate says. "It's [little] things you worry about as well. Is someone brushing her teeth? Is someone rubbing her tummy if she's not feeling well? It's all those things you do as a mother," she says.
There are times when her mind wanders to the worst-case scenario, but Kate says she's learned to cope with that as well. "I think it's natural. I know people mean well when they say, 'Don't let yourself go there,' and it's not going to help," she says. "But as a mom, inevitably there are times when I do. Those are the times that I dip down."
The McCanns have been through a terrible ordeal over the past two years, but they say nothing can be worse than the early days after Madeleine's disappearance. "I think almost everyone knows that feeling of terror if you're a parent and you've got a child in the supermarket and you momentarily lose them," Gerry says. "It's something that no parent should have to go through. ... It's just the most devastating, horrible sensation. Fear for your child and your whole existence.You family existence."
The McCanns have been vilified worldwide for leaving their children alone while they had dinner with friends. Looking back, they both regret the wrong decision. "I could persecute myself every day about that, and I feel awful that we weren't there at that minute," Kate says.
Gerry says his biggest complaint about the media's negative attention is that it takes the focus away from what's really important. "There's an abductor out there, and that person stole our child. He went into an apartment and took a child, and he's anonymous and blameless," he says.
Gerry says he left dinner at 9 p.m. on the night of Madeleine's disappearance to check on his children. Usually, the parents just checked for crying, Gerry says, but that evening he noticed the door to the bedroom that his three kids shared was open more than the tiny bit he'd left it. "So I actually stepped into the room, and the twins were sound asleep and Madeleine was lying in her bed exactly where she was when I left," he says.
After leaving the apartment, Gerry says he ran into another hotel guest, whom he stopped to talk to. "During that time, [a friend from dinner] went to check on her children, and it was at that point—she was just past us—she saw a man carrying a young girl," he says. "She saw me there—she'd seen that I'd just been in the apartment—so at the time she thought it was something off, but it didn't raise enough alarm bells to challenge the person with anything."
The McCanns believe that the man their friend saw was carrying Madeleine. "[Our friend] described independently the pajamas that Madeleine had on, [but] she didn't see the child's face," he says.
When it came time for the 9:30 p.m. check, Kate says both she and their friend Matt got up to check on the kids. Matt's apartment was next to the McCanns', so Kate says he offered to check on Madeleine and the twins. "He went to check at half [past] nine, came back and said, 'Fine, everything's fine.'" Kate says Matt didn't actually see Madeleine—he only listened for crying.
At 10 p.m., Kate says she went into the apartment and didn't hear any crying. However, she did notice, like Gerry did, that the door was open wider than usual. "I thought, 'Matt must have gone in and left the door open, so I'll just close it again.' As I went to close it, it slammed shut like a draft had caused it to shut," she says. "So then I opened the door thinking, 'I'll open it ajar a bit again,' and that was when I looked into the room, and it was quite dark. I was looking and looking at Madeleine's bed, and I was thinking, 'Is that her?'"
Kate went into the room and saw that Madeleine wasn't in her bed. "Then I thought, 'Maybe she's wandered to our bed and that's why the door is open,'" she says. "So I went through to our bedroom, and she wasn't there, and then I'm kind of starting to panic." Kate says she ran back into the children's room, and at that moment the curtains flew open and she saw that the shutter was open. "That was when I knew that someone had taken her," she says. "It was obvious, because a child could not open those shutters."
When the McCanns realized Madeleine was missing, they involved the media almost immediately. "After a few hours, our friends were saying, 'Contact the media,'" Gerry says. "The Portuguese police were saying, 'No, no media,' but we were desperate at that point."
Kate says they involved the media because they didn't know what else to do. "The feeling was absolute helplessness," she says. "You're absolutely desperate. I mean, this is our daughter who we love beyond words, and every second is like hours. Nothing can happen quick enough."
Four days after Madeleine's disappearance, the McCanns held another press conference pleading for their daughter's safe return. Kate remained calm as she spoke, but the tabloids would use her appearance against her, saying her lack of emotion implied guilt. "I'd spent 72 hours crying, and you suddenly almost feel a little bit numb," Kate says.
She'd also spoken with a behavioral expert who'd given specific advice on how to act at the press conference, Kate says. "They said, 'It's quite important that you don't show any emotion, because the abductor could get some kind of adverse kick out of it,'" she says. "When you get the feeling that if you do [something] it could be detrimental in some way to your daughter, there's a huge pressure on you to do well."
Though it may have done more harm than good, Kate says she doesn't regret taking the behavioral expert's advice. "It was advice given with the best intention," she says.
Though the McCanns had already been through a lot, another tough blow came four months into the search when they were named as suspects in Madeleine's disappearance. "It was incredibly upsetting because, just when you think things can't get any worse. It made me very angry. It suddenly dawned on me that they weren't looking for Madeleine and they weren't looking for the abductor," Kate says. "When that happened and I got angry, I just felt stronger. I just thought, 'I'm going to fight to the death for Madeleine.'"
On top of being named suspects, the McCanns became the subject of tabloid rumors accusing them of drugging Madeleine or giving her sedatives that caused her death. "It's just nonsense," Gerry says. "People can have their theories, and that's all it is. There's no evidence to support any of that. It's absolutely ludicrous."
When a couple loses a child, the marriage often suffers. The McCanns say that despite the hard times they've been through, they are still very much together. "Child abduction could destroy any family—there's no doubt about it," Gerry says. "But we've been supported tremendously well, and I think that's helped us stay strong and stay together. And obviously we're really united in our goal and our love of Madeleine, and Sean and Amelie."
The McCanns say they get much of their strength from Sean and Amelie, who are now older than Madeleine was when she disappeared. " Those days when things are really bad and you just want to crawl under a rock and say, 'Make it all go away,' Sean and Amelie will come out with something like 'When Madeleine comes back, I'm going to give her this,'" Gerry says. "They talk about her all the time; she's a big part of their life. And you just think, if Madeleine walks through that door today, for Sean and Amelie it will feel like she'd never been away."
Kate says that despite Madeleine's disappearance, she tries her hardest not to be too overprotective. "They have to live," she says. "They have to experience life. There are times when you have to let go, for their development."
They've been fighting for Madeleine for two years, but the McCanns say they still don't think they've come close to finding their daughter. "It's hard because you almost don't want to let yourself go there," Gerry says. "Until we have some sort of evidence—a photograph or something—then I think we wouldn't really allow ourselves to think, 'This is it.'"
No law enforcement agency is currently looking for Madeleine, but the McCanns say their search is still active. "Other people might think, 'They're deluded,' but it has happened, like Elizabeth Smart," he says. "There's two ways I think Madeleine will be found—the age progression picture [or] we'll identify the abductor."
Kate says she's convinced somebody out there knows something. "At the end of the day, this man is known to somebody, you know? He's someone's son, someone's brother, someone's cousin, someone's neighbor, someone's colleague," she says. "Even if these people don't know that he definitely did it, they might have a suspicion. And if you know somebody really well, you don't want to think that he could be linked to something like this. ... It's just reaching out to them and saying, 'Please come forward.'"
The McCanns have worked tirelessly to get their daughter back, but Kate says she will never feel like they've done everything. "I don't think any parent could," she says.
Gerry says he and Kate now believe that someone had been watching their family for days before Madeleine was taken. He says he wants to tell that person that he can still make it right. "It's not too late to do the right thing. They can give her up. They can tell us where she is. They can hand her over to a priest or someone in authority."
Madeleine needs to be with her family, Kate says. "She's got a little brother and sister who want her back in their life. If you don't want to think about Gerry and I, think about Sean and Amelie. Bring their sister back."
In the past two years, the McCanns have made efforts to get their lives back to normal as much as possible. Six months after Madeleine's disappearance, Gerry returned to work. "I felt it was important that the twins had normality back in their life, and I think, almost for selfish reasons, I needed to be thinking about something else."
Gerry has returned to Portugal twice since 2007. "It was difficult, but I feel nothing against Praia da Luz, because child abductions happen all over the world," he says. "It's the perpetrator, rather than the apartment or the resort or Portugal."
If you have any information about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, go to FindMadeleine.com