Despair turns to joy in Cleo’s remarkable rescue

So much of this story is ordinary. A young girl who loved to collect rocks, dress up in princess dresses and build sand castles on the beach. She had recently learnt how to ride her bike without its trainer wheels.

Just under three weeks ago, she went camping with her family who were keen to try out a new tent. On the first night, by eight o’clock she was tucked into her sleeping bag wearing a pink and purple pyjama suit. When she woke at 1.30am, her mother gave her a drink of water and put her back into bed. As her mother later recounted: “It was going to be quite a windy night, it was overcast. We just tried to make sure she was safe.”

By the morning, she was gone.

Cleo Smith in hospital after her rescue in Carnarvon, Western Australia. Credit:WA POLICE

In the 18 days it took to find Cleo Smith, this ordinary story became an extraordinary tale of a desperate search for a missing girl and the parental heartache of a lost child. It captured the fears and hopes of people across Australia and abroad in a raw and human way.

The search soon took an ominous turn. That her sleeping bag was missing and the tent zip would have been out of reach for such a young child led police to believe she was abducted. More than 100 police officers were assigned to the case. Roadside bins stretching more than 600 kilometres were sifted through, CCTV, dash-cam vision and telephone towers were scoured for clues, a $1 million reward was offered for leads.

As the days wore on with no sign of her, concerns over her safety intensified. Children who are taken by someone who is not a relative are rarely found alive. The most infamous case is that of British girl Madeleine McCann. Having vanished in 2007 from her family apartment at a resort in Portugal, she has never been found. Closer to home is the tragic case of William Tyrell, aged three, who disappeared in 2014 wearing a Spider-Man suit from the yard of his foster grandmother’s home on the NSW north coast.

As the world now knows, police found Cleo in a house just seven minutes drive from her family home in Carnarvon. Four officers broke down the door of the locked home just past midnight on Wednesday. They found the lights on and Cleo playing with some toys. One of the officers picked her up, and she was asked three times, “What’s your name?” before she responded: “My name is Cleo.”

The young girl was soon reunited with her family and the public was told the news that had become less likely by the day: Cleo had been found alive and appeared well. It was a moment to savour and, for many, triggered an emotional outpouring of relief and joy. It will be some time before the full details of what happened are revealed, but she was safe and, as her mother Ellie posted on Instagram, “Our family is whole again.”

On Thursday, WA Premier Mark McGowan spent time with Cleo and her family. He later remarked that she was a “delightful little girl” who was “bubbly, playing, friendly, sweet [and] … eating an icy pole. We just had a normal conversation, like you do with little girls.”

Just an ordinary girl, with an ordinary family, who have all just lived through an extraordinary experience.

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