Hundreds of people from an entire community were this afternoon desperately searching for missing five-year-old April Jones.
Volunteers were joined by mountain rescue experts to conduct a search around Machynlleth, while specialist teams were drafted in to scour built up areas in the town. Two police helicopters were also brought in to help search a wider area.
Many volunteers joined the search after seeing information on social networking sites.
April, who was wearing a purple knee-length coat with grey fur around the hood, a white polo shirt and black trousers, was last seen getting into the driver’s side of a light coloured vehicle on Bryn y Gog estate in the small market town of 2,000 people last night at about 7pm.
Police believe the vehicle could have been a Land Rover or a Ford Connect-type van.
Volunteers involved in the search were told to look out for the clothes April was wearing at the time of her abduction. Police warned volunteers not to touch any clothing matching this description and to contact them, or their mountain rescue leader, immediately should they be located.
Phil Nicol from Aberdovey Mountain Rescue said: “We will be working with the police and volunteers to make sure everyone is used to the best of their ability.”
Machynellth’s primary and the adjacent Bro Ddyfi Secondary School were open as usual today with extra staff drafted in to help headteachers cope with concerned parents and worried children.
John Evans from Powys County Council said: “It was important to keep things as normal as possible for pupils. There is a great deal of concern amongst parents and staff are ensuring a high level of security.
“Officers from the county council are in both schools today to give their support.”
Locals said they were devastated, stunned and in shock at the abduction of the little girl from a “caring and lovely family”.
Search volunteer Anwen Morris said locals had searched an area with a 30-mile radius overnight using quad bikes and off-road vehicles.
“The most important thing here is to get this little girl home,” she said.
Harley Cato, 19, from Dolgellau, said: “I heard about this last night when people started posting messages and photos on Facebook and decided to come and join the search.”
Mr Cato’s friend, Sam Lowe, 17, secured a lift to Machynlleth after searching Facebook to see who else was joining the hunt for April. He added: “By looking through who was joining the search on Facebook I was able to come down and help.”
Local father Dave Maguire, 30, said he felt compelled to help. He said: “My friends told me about what was happening. I and my partner have two children, a 10-year-old boy and a two-and-a-half month old daughter. We can relate to how the family must feel, this is every parents worst nightmare.”
Clive Speak, 36, a butcher from William Lloyd Williams & Sons in the town, said as soon as he heard April was missing he got his coat and went out searching.
He said he went to Penrhyn Coch and the surrounding roads looking for vans or any signs of the girl and was out all night until 4.05am.
He said the family were customers. He said: “The family come to the butchers, it is a tight-knit community. I haven’t seen the family. They have a family liaison officer with them. I will be going out again after work. I have a niece who is seven years old and they are in the same school. It is a bit of a shock for everybody.
“I hope we get her back, that is the main thing.”
Aled Davies, 36, is a shift manager at the Bro Ddyfi Leisure Centre, in Aberystwyth Road. He said staff at the centre offered to keep it open as a hub for searchers.
He said that last night about 200 people turned out to help look for April. People were handed maps to help in the search and some were travelling from 30-50 miles radius in their search. He said: “It is devastating. We are going to remain open, we are going to be dedicated.”
He added that people who worked at the leisure centre arrived to help even though it was not their shift. Geraint Evans, 37, from the Dovey Valley Motor Club, said: “We have been here since 8pm last night when we heard the news.
“Since then me and other members of the club have helped coordinate 200 to 300 people around the country roads which we know. The search has stretched up as far as the south of Snowdonia. If the person who abducted her has got that far then they could be anywhere.
Specialist teams came in from across the area including teams from Network Rail to help search an area around the Machynlleth line. Search co-ordinators said local farmers had been heavily involved, allowing volunteers to scour their land and help sweep rural roads.
County Councillor Michael Williams also joined in the search efforts. Speaking about April’s relatives he added: “They are such a lovely, caring family and they are devastated.”
By Peter Finch and Andrew Morris in Machynlleth