'WHAT did you do to my baby?" The agonised father stared into the eyes of the man, shouting the question in horrified shock and sickened disbelief. He had to be physically held back.
The screams of the two little girls will stay for ever with the Good Samaritan who had managed to catch up with their alleged attacker at the scene, pinning him to the ground until the gardai came.
It was those screams and the screams of the girls' mothers that instinctively alerted the man to how serious an incident this was. They were sounds that pierced the heart.
Rain poured down in Athlone late into the evening yesterday, yet protesters remained outside the garda station, roaring and brandishing placards and urging motorists to "beep the horn" to show their outrage over what had occurred in this town.
"Throw him out here to face us," yelled angry bystanders.
It was the only topic of discussion on the streets among a population repulsed by an alleged attack on two little girls on the supposedly joyous occasion of a family birthday party.
One man who arrived at the scene on Saturday told the Irish Independent he did not want to be a hero for apprehending their alleged attacker because "anyone would have done" what he did.
The man would not give his identity, only that he was a publican and grew up on the estate where the incident occurred.
He is also the father of two young boys who he often allowed to play nearby on the green where the two young girls were taken, and where he had played as a boy.
His sons will be "18 years of age" before he lets them out of his sight again, he said grimly.
Never in his wildest imagination did he think anything like this could happen in this quiet little development.
Among them is a couple who decided to hold a child's birthday party at the weekend to which friends and cousins would be invited.
It was to be a family day and included the two little girls, aged six and nine, who had travelled from outside Athlone to be there.
The children had dispersed to play outside and were called in to have food.
The absence of the two girls was noted, at first with irritation, and 10 minutes later with growing frenzy.
The adults began to search the estate when the Good Samaritan was told two children were missing. He joined in the search, looking in "the obvious places" until he spotted a man in his 30s with a bottle of vodka and a bag of drink coming out of a nearby apartment building.
Moments later, he heard the screams of the children. "I'll never forget it," he said.
"I can still hear them. I knew something bad had happened."
Almost instantly, he was alerted by a resident in the apartments, shouting: "Get him! He had them in the apartment!"
Still unsure of what had happened, he gave chase along with a friend and they managed to track the man he had spotted to the main road. There was a struggle and the man threatened him with a bottle.
"I asked him what he did with the kids, but he said he didn't do anything. I lost the plot, to be honest.
" I had him pinned to the ground with one hand and was trying to ring the guards with the other."
The father of one of the little girls ran up. He had just received a call from his wife conveying the appalling news that their daughter had been the victim of a vicious sex assault.
"What did you do to my baby!" he screamed.
Another relative of the children stood next to him, white with shock.
The Good Samaritan said: "This is one of the nicest, quietest gentleman you could ever meet. He kept saying, 'Oh my God, oh my God'. My heart broke for him, that this could happen."
A 10-year-old neighbour had been approached by the same alleged perpetrator the previous day. She has given a statement to gardai.
Athlone was gripped by shock and anger from early morning until late last night as protesters remained outside the garda station on Barracks Street.
Among them were mothers with their children, fathers, young men and women and the elderly.
Many claimed to know the alleged attacker, making it all the more shocking for them that such a horrifying incident could happen not only in their midst but that it could be carried out by one of their own.
"You wouldn't have to be a mother to be here – you just need to have a heart," said one elderly woman who said she would wait all day if she had to, to see the man.
ONE woman said she had "burst out crying" when she heard of the attack in the area where she lives.
"Nobody slept in Athlone last night," said Jacqueline Berry, a mother of nine who said she was horrified by what had happened not far from her own home.
"We're staying until we see him. You need to know who you're living beside," said her daughter, Nicole.
At first the crowd stood outside the courthouse awaiting an anticipated appearance.
Elaine McLoughlin came with her youngest child in a buggy.
"I'm so concerned," she said.
"Forget the Seanad, forget the referendum – children are what's really important."
As the day wore on, it became apparent that the man would remain in garda custody at the station, and the protest moved down the street to resume outside. "At least he'll hear us in there," said one woman.
By nightfall, and now more unruly, the crowd were roaring for the man to be brought out to face them. Gardai appealed for calm so they could concentrate on their investigation.
But for now, Athlone remains a town unappeased.