Morocco was in shock on Sunday after emergency teams found a five-year-old boy dead at the bottom of a well at the tragic end of a painstaking five-day rescue operation that gripped the nation and the world .
The ordeal of ‘little Rayan’ since he fell into the well on Tuesday afternoon has captured global attention and sparked an outpouring of sympathy online, with the Arabic hashtag #SaveRayan trending.
Throughout the operation to extract him from the bottom of the 32-meter (100-foot) shaft, authorities had warned they did not know if he was alive.
And reflecting the emotions caused by the tragedy, it was the royal cabinet of Morocco which announced that he had been found dead.
“Following the tragic accident that claimed the life of the child Rayan Oram, His Majesty King Mohammed VI called the parents of the boy who died after falling into the well,” said a statement from the royal court.
By mid-afternoon on Saturday, rescue crews, using bulldozers and front-end loaders, had dug the surrounding red earth down to the level where the boy was trapped, and digging crews began to create a tunnel horizontal to reach it from the side.
But progress slowed to a snail’s pace as drill crews worked by hand to avoid any vibration that could bring brittle ground onto the affected child, local authorities said.
AFP correspondents saw the boy’s parents descend the slope in the horizontal tunnel, visibly crushed, before returning and boarding an ambulance without saying a word.
After a period of confusion, a crowd of onlookers began to disperse into gloomy silence.
The family has not yet announced the date of the funeral, but according to Muslim tradition, it should take place soon, in principle on Sunday.
– “So tragic” –
Tributes poured in following news that rescue efforts had failed to retrieve Rayan alive.
“I want to tell the family of little Rayan and the Moroccan people that we share your pain,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on Facebook.
“Rayan’s courage will live on in our memories and continue to inspire us,” AC Milan’s Algerian midfielder Ismael Bennacer wrote in a tweet along with a drawing of a child being lifted in the sky, carried by a heart-shaped balloon marked with the colors of Morocco.
“We all hoped little Rayan would pull through,” Moroccan-American novelist Laila Lalami wrote on Twitter. “It’s all so tragic.”
– Race against time –
Thousands of people had gathered and even camped in solidarity around the site in recent days, where AFP journalists said the tension was palpable.
Some had clapped to encourage the rescuers, sang religious songs or prayed while chanting in unison “Allahu akbar” (God is the greatest).
Workers had tried to drop oxygen and water on the child but it was unclear whether he was able to use them, AFP correspondents reported.
“I remain hopeful that my child will come out of the well alive,” Rayan’s father told 2M public television on Friday evening. “I thank everyone involved and those who support us in Morocco and elsewhere.”
He said earlier in the week he was fixing the well when the boy fell into it.
The shaft, just 45 centimeters (18 inches) in diameter, was too narrow for the boy to reach directly, and widening it was considered too risky. The earthmoving machines therefore dug a wide slope into the hill to reach it from the side.
The operation made the landscape look like a construction site, and red-helmeted civil defense personnel were sometimes suspended by a rope, like on a cliff.
During the night, they worked non-stop under powerful spotlights which made the scene look dark.