Ighrane – Moroccan emergency crews found a five-year-old boy dead at the bottom of a well late Saturday in a tragic end to a painstaking five-day rescue operation that gripped the nation and beyond.
“Following the tragic accident which cost the life of the child Rayan Oram, His Majesty King Mohammed VI called the parents of the boy who died after falling down the well,” a statement from the royal court said.
Through the days-long operation to extricate little Rayan from the bottom of the 32-metre (100 foot) well shaft, authorities had cautioned that they did not know whether the child was dead or alive.
But news of his death sent a chill through the cold mountain air of his home village of Ighrane in the Rif mountains of northern Morocco where thousands of volunteers and well-wishers had gathered this week in a show of solidarity with his family.
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It was well after dark when rescue teams finally broke through to the well shaft where the boy was trapped, from the deep cut in the mountainside they had excavated in recent days.
AFP correspondents saw the boy’s parents walk down the slope into the cut, visibly crushed, before returning and boarding an ambulance without saying a word.
After a period of confusion, the crowd of onlookers began dispersing in sombre silence.
There was no official word on the boy’s condition until Moroccan media carried the palace statement.
The boy’s ordeal since he fell down the well on Tuesday afternoon had gripped residents of the North African kingdom and beyond, also sparking sympathy in neighbouring Algeria, a regional rival.
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By mid-afternoon Saturday, rescue crews, using bulldozers and front-end loaders, had excavated the surrounding red earth down to the level where the boy was trapped, and drill teams began work on excavating a horizontal tunnel to reach him from the side.
But progress slowed to a snail’s pace as the drill teams worked by hand to avoid any vibrations that might bring the brittle soil down on the stricken child, local authorities said.
The more time passed, the more fears mounted over Rayan’s condition.
Rescuers did not give up hope of recovering the child alive, although officials acknowledged they had no firm evidence of his condition.
Onlookers applauded to encourage the rescuers, sang religious songs or prayed, chanting in unison “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest).
Rescuers had tried to get oxygen and water down to the child but it was not clear whether he was able to use them, AFP correspondents reported.
Thousands of people had gathered and even camped in solidarity around the site in recent days, where AFP reporters have said the tension has been palpable.
“We are showing solidarity with this child, who is dear to Morocco and the whole world,” said onlooker Hafid El-Azzouz, who lives in the region.
The shaft, just 45 centimetres (18 inches) across, was too narrow to reach Rayan, and widening it was deemed too risky — so earth-movers dug a wide slope into the hill to reach him from the side.
The operation made the landscape resemble a construction site.
Red-helmeted civil defence personnel had at times been suspended by rope, as if on a cliff face.
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Overnight they worked non-stop under powerful floodlights that gave a gloomy air to the scene.
“I keep up hope that my child will get out of the well alive,” Rayan’s father had told public television 2M on Friday evening. “I thank everyone involved and those supporting us in Morocco and elsewhere.”
He said earlier in the week that he had been repairing the well when the boy fell in.
The drama sparked an outpouring of sympathy online, with the trending Arabic hashtag #SaveRayan.
One Twitter user paid tribute to rescue workers working around the clock for days, saying, “they are real-life heroes”.
Police reinforcements were deployed and metal barricades erected in an effort to prevent a swarm of onlookers from impeding rescuers.
The boy’s ordeal echoed a tragedy in Spain in early 2019 when a two-year-old child died after falling into an abandoned well 25 centimetres wide and more than 70 metres deep.
Julen Rosello’s body was recovered after a search and rescue operation that lasted 13 days.
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