Washington - Two women who disappeared as teenagers and were given up for dead, and a third who was 20 when abducted, were rescued on Monday from a Cleveland, Ohio, neighbourhood after one of them escaped with the help of a neighbour.
Amanda Berry, who was 16 when she disappeared in 2003 on her way home from her job at a fast-food restaurant, managed to alert police while her captor, a 52-year-old man, was out of the house.
"I've been kidnapped and I've been missing for 10 years and I'm here, I'm free now," she said in an urgent voice to the 911 emergency operator, according to a recording released by police.
Anxious over the questions from the operator about what clothes her captor was wearing, she shouted, in frustration: "I don't know because he's not here right now and that's how I got away."
When the operator said police would be on their way as soon as a car was available, she cried with impatience and fear: "I need them now before he gets back!"
Three brothers have been arrested, including Ariel Castro, aged 52, the man who owned the house, said Ed Tomba, Cleveland's deputy police chief chief. The other brothers were 50 and 54 years old. The FBI - federal police - were searching the house, Tomba said.
Cases kept alive
According to news reports, Berry's captor also held Gina DeJesus, who disappeared at age 14 in 2004, and Michelle Knight, who disappeared in 2000 at age 20. Police freed the other two women when they raided the house, the reports said.
The women were allegedly held in an ordinary wood-frame house in a Hispanic neighbourhood of the northern Ohio city, less than a kilometre from where the families of Berry and DeJesus lived. Little was reported about Knight.
Vigils, photos, posters and regular local media coverage kept alive the cases of Berry and DeJesus in the public mind, so that when Berry grabbed the opportunity to yell for help, a neighbour responded.
Just last month, a local television station had done a 10-year-missing story about Berry. And two weeks ago, the families held a vigil in the neighbourhood, according to Cleveland City Council member Brian Cummins in an interview broadcast on CNN.
Charles Ramsey, who lived next door to the house, described how he had been eating his McDonald's lunch when he heard Berry's screams and saw her arm waving through a crack in the door. She was "going nuts trying to get outside", Ramsey told ABC NewsNet 5 in Cleveland.
He rushed to the front porch, but the door was barred, so he kicked it in. When Berry finally emerged, there was a 3-year-old child with her, Ramsey said. He placed the call to 911, saying he was calling on behalf of Amanda Berry - then paused to tell the operator: "I thought she was dead."
Neighbours said they never noticed anything amiss in the house. Ramsey said there was "not a clue that there was anybody else in the house" when he shared backyard picnics with the captor. "I barbecued with the dude," Ramsey said.
After the rescue, her brother-in-law confirmed in an interview with 19 ActionNews that Berry had had a child while in captivity, and the family was looking forward to meeting her. A photo taken in the Metro Health hospital, where the four victims were taken, showed two adult women and a child, laughing and hugging each other.
Dr Gerald Maloney, an emergency room physician at Metro Health, told reporters that they all appeared to be "in fair condition" at the moment.
"This isn't the ending we usually hear to these stories, so we're very happy for them," Maloney said.
Celebrations broke out across the Ohio city over the news of the rescue.