Effort to Rescue a 5-Year-Old Transfixes Morocco, Only to End Sadly

CAIRO — The vigil had lasted for four days, transfixing tens of thousands of people around the world who watched, tweeted, cheered and prayed as a small band of rescuers in a tiny Moroccan village tried to free a 5-year-old boy from the deep well into which he had plunged.

#SaveRayan, they pleaded.

On Saturday night, workers, who had dug a rescue tunnel, finally reached Rayan Oram, the boy. But the medical helicopter that had been waiting for days to take him to a hospital had no need to take off. He was dead.

United for days in hope, Moroccans, and others in northwest Africa, were suddenly united in grief.

“I wanted to believe that miracles still happen,” said Mehdi Idrissi, 32, a doctor in the Moroccan city of Fez who followed the rescue effort for days, doubting that Rayan could survive his ordeal but clinging to optimism. “As a country, we needed a bit of hope, and even though the ending was tragic, it did bring us all together. May he rest in peace.”

At some points during the operation, more than 100,000 people were monitoring one of the livestreams that showed the trench where the rescuers, working day and night, were digging by bulldozer and by hand. Thousands more followed along on other livestreams and on social media, not only Moroccans but also Algerians, others from North Africa and people in France, where there is a large diaspora from the Maghreb, the Francophone region of North Africa.

Reporters on the scene occasionally broke into the livestream to thank viewers in English, French and Arabic for their support.

“I think every one of us, every Moroccan around the globe, is awake, watching and praying for the 5-year-old Rayan to be rescued and reunited with his parents,” Boutaïna Azzabi Ezzaouia, a Dutch-Moroccan digital producer in the Netherlands, wrote on Twitter.

For days, there appeared to be reason for hope: on Thursday, a camera that rescuers had lowered into the well appeared to show Rayan moving, if bloodied. Workers were also able to send him oxygen and water.

But by Saturday afternoon, when rescuers had tunneled to within inches of where the boy was stuck, the authorities went quiet about his condition. At one point, they said they could not assess his health because he was lying on his side in such a way that it was difficult to see him. Later, they refused to describe what they were seeing at all.

As the hours passed with no official word on Rayan’s status, it became harder to avoid the question of whether he was still alive.

All that was clear was that the diggers were still digging.

Initially, rescue workers tried to pull him up from the 100-foot well where he had fallen on Tuesday afternoon. But fearing the shaft’s walls would collapse, they switched tacks. First, they bulldozed a trench next to the well, then they tunneled horizontally from the trench toward the bottom of the well, shifting course when they hit a barrier of solid rock.

All Saturday afternoon, rumor had it that the rescuers were about to break through — that they would have their hands on Rayan within two hours, or at any moment — only for the tunneling to go on interminably as they hit obstacles.

Around 9:30 p.m., cheers of joy broke out around the well, where hundreds of spectators and rescue workers had gathered over the course of the week, some even sleeping under trees as they kept vigil. Rayan was out.

But rescuers huddled tightly around him as they carried him to an ambulance, making it impossible to tell whether he was alive or dead.

Minutes later, word spread: the king of Morocco, Mohammed VI, had called Rayan’s parents, Khaled Oram and Wassima Khersheesh, offering them his condolences.

The king “confirmed that he had been following the developments of this tragic accident closely, and had issued instructions to all the concerned authorities to take the necessary measures and make the utmost effort to save the life of the deceased,” according to a statement from the royal court published on state-run media. “It was God Almighty’s will,” the statement concluded, that Rayan had died.

Some who had followed the operation burst into tears in public. Others took to social media, where they had for days gathered to encourage the rescuers and share prayers for Rayan. Even many in Algeria, which despite close cultural and familial ties to its Moroccan neighbors has been locked in a hostile diplomatic standoff with Morocco for the past year, rallied to the cause.

“We, all of us, had been holding out hope that little Rayan would make it,” Laila Lalami, a Moroccan novelist who has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, said on Twitter after learning the boy had died. “This is all so tragic.”

Video from the scene had shown rescuers manually drilling sideways toward Rayan, their work lit by headlamps, as prayers and shouts of encouragement burst from the onlookers gathered aboveground.

Rain and hard rock that got in the way of the drilling complicated the process overnight into Saturday, and the work proceeded slowly.

The village of Ighrane, about 60 miles from the blue-walled northern Moroccan city of Chefchaouen, had been sleepless for four nights as the rescue effort continued. As onlookers gathered at the well, Rayan’s family made couscous, the traditional Moroccan dish, and served it to the crowd. Others distributed bread and dates.

Rayan’s father told reporters he had been in the process of fixing the well, which he owns, when Rayan fell in, but had not realized at first where the boy had gone. His mother said the family had searched the area when they noticed he was gone, not at first suspecting he had tumbled into the well.

First the family searched the area. Then the neighbors. Then civil rescue workers, topographers, members of the Royal Gendarmerie and even volunteers from a local mountaineering and caving society.

“I don’t have words,” a Twitter user named Deej wrote at the moment rescuers finally pulled Rayan from the well, adding a series of heart emojis. “He…he…he has come out.”

But heartbreak followed within minutes. “Emotional destruction,” Deej wrote. “Destruction.”

Marc Santora contributed reporting from London.