Sept. 11, 2008 -- Alex Firestone was 14 years old when her mom, Sandra Gebert, disappeared.
"It was just a simple hug, a kiss goodbye, I love you and I will be back soon," Firestone told ABC News.
Gebert, a housewife and novice writer, took what was supposed to be a short vacation to London, leaving Alex and her stepdad, John Gebert, in charge of the five younger brothers and sisters. But she never returned.
"I remember the day she left," said son Jude Gebert, now 13. "When a few weeks came by it hit me. She wasn't coming back. It made the whole family, including me, very sad."
Editor's Note: ABCNews.com has been deluged with requests for contact information for the Firestone family, to make donations, send wishes and express support. Catholic Charities of Atlanta has graciously agreed to handle all of the offers of help – whether they are monetary, clothing, furniture, etc – and will pass them along to the family. Readers can go to their website at Catholic Charities of Atlanta to get more information on how to help, or call them at 404-881-6571.
Unbeknown to her family, Sandra Gebert had fled to England and created a new identity; she remarried and changed her name to Sandee McCann and became a successful romance novelist.
Firestone, now 21 and living in Lilburn, Ga., said her mother cleaned out the family's life savings and left them financially ruined when she left. Over seven years, they feared the worst for their missing mother, but Firestone kept up her search.
She recently remembered the name of a novel her mother had been working on called "Sentimental Street." She searched for it and one result came up.
Firestone was shocked to see a photograph of her mother. McCann's Web site said she had married a fellow author and spoke of her new life and desire to have another baby.
The Sun, a British tabloid, first reported the story a month ago, after Firestone contacted the paper.
Since then, the family and their estranged mother have traded barbs in press reports in the United States and England, with McCann saying that she has tried over the years to contact her children, but that her communication was blocked by the children's overprotective father.
McCann said she fled her home in Florida to escape her controlling ex-husband, John Gebert, who she says wouldn't let her leave the family's home and made her fear for her life.
But Firestone, who is the daughter from Sandee McCann's first marriage, said her mom had her e-mail address and phone number and could have contacted her at any time.
Firestone also disputes McCann's claim that she was abused by Gebert.
"My stepfather never laid a hand on my mom, and as far as keeping the mail from the kids, I was the one who went to the mailbox every day, as my dad worked, and I stayed at home during the day," Firestone told ABC News.
Firestone told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that her mother took her out of school in the fifth grade to home-school her. After her mom disappeared, she had to care for her five half-siblings and never returned to school. Firestone cooks, cleans and helps her brothers and sisters with their homework, and she has the added responsibility of caring for 11-year-old Christian who has autism.
Mom Felt Her 'Life Was in Danger'
Since the reports of the family strife, McCann has refused public comment except for one interview with a small British weekly, the Coventry Times.
When ABC News went to her home on a quiet cul-de-sac in Coventry, England, there was no answer at the door.
ABCNews.com could not gain access to McCann's personal Web site, and it has been reported that McCann has had to remove the site after readers of the article posted "hurtful" comments.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, McCann has also changed her voice-mail message, which now says, "Please be advised that under no circumstances will I ever grant interviews regarding family or personal matters."
In an interview with the Coventry Times, McCann said that the story had been completely misrepresented.
Coventry Times reporter Sandish Shoker told ABC News that an emotionally distraught McCann invited her into her home to let the world know her side of the story.
"She said she was in a controlling relationship, she was depressed, she wanted to get out," Shoker said. "She loved her kids. She felt there was no other option but to leave. She had made friends with a guy from Coventry and … he offered her shelter at his house, so that's why she moved to England."
The 42-year-old author said that she felt trapped in her marriage to Gebert.
"My husband completely controlled me," she told Shoker. "I had no access to money or a vehicle. I wasn't allowed to leave the house, and he would threaten me. I felt my life was in danger."
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, John Gebert said he found evidence on his then-wife's computer that she was having affairs with other men.
McCann denied Firestone's claims that she never attempted to contact the family.
"I don't know whether my communications were intercepted, but I can't even put into words how it feels to know that my children don't know I've tried contacting them and don't know why I left," McCann said.
Shoker told ABC News that McCann said she tried many times to send e-mails, gifts and letters.
But in 2002, the Geberts formally divorced, "through a process in which one spouse can dissolve a marriage if he or she cannot locate the other person for an extended period of time," according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
McCann's new husband, Michael McCann, who also spoke to the Coventry Times, said, "We tried so hard to contact the children, but we have done nothing wrong. Sandee is too frightened to go back, and we just want to be able to get on with our lives."
McCann is the author of a number of romance novels. In an interview about her books with Fallen Angel Reviews, she told the interviewer of her proudest accomplishment: "When I was feeling rather unhappy and unfulfilled with my life, I had the courage to pick myself up and successfully relocate myself to a new country."
Firestone, meanwhile, said she's haunted by many unanswered questions. But if there is a silver lining to the story, Firestone's half-siblings, Jude, Dylan and Bria, are straight-A students, and Christian is on the honor roll in his special needs classes. There's another sibling, Rebecca. The say they owe it all to their big sister.
"She plays sister, mother, friend, all those roles," Christian said.
Firestone said her mother is missing out on time with "great kids." And for all she has given up in her own life, Firestone said she knows she's made all the difference in the lives of her sisters and brothers.
"It just makes me happy, too, because it's nice to know that at least I did something good," she said. "Even though I missed out on a lot, I accomplished something good."