CAIRO — Rescuers working day and night raced against the clock early Saturday to try to save a 5-year-old boy, his face distraught and bloodied, after he was trapped in a 100-foot-deep well in a sleepy Moroccan village for more than three days.
The operation to save the boy, named Rayan, who fell to the bottom of the well in northern Morocco, reached a critical stage on Friday, as Moroccans and others across North Africa breathlessly followed the rescue on live streams.
Rayan has been stuck in the well near his home in the tiny village of Ighrane, about 125 miles from the city of Chefchaouen, since Tuesday afternoon. Rescuers brought in bulldozers to dig a parallel shaft from which they could tunnel through to reach the child, but they feared that either part of the well or the parallel shaft would collapse before they could get there.
According to the state-run news agency Maghreb Arabe Presse, the drilling process was in its “final stages.” The operation was temporarily paused around nightfall on Friday, but rescuers resumed digging once it was deemed safe to proceed.
According to Le360, a local publication, two rescuers were manually digging the final inches that separated them from Rayan. A helicopter was on the scene to transport Rayan to a hospital in one of the major cities as soon as he emerged.
As rescue workers jockeyed to save the boy, throngs of people looking on at the site recited prayers and shouted encouragements to the rescue team. Some onlookers sat around or slept under trees, eager to witness the resolution of the crisis. Rayan’s family made couscous, the traditional Moroccan dish, and served it to people among the crowd. Others distributed bread and dates.
Abdelhadi Temrani, one of the rescuers, said the effort was a very delicate process.
“This stage is the most important and most complicated one,” he said. “You can’t sacrifice a team if there is a chance of collapse,” he added, explaining that the rescuers could not send anyone down to start digging across until they had secured the parallel shaft.
Using rope, rescue workers on Thursday had lowered an oxygen tube and water to the boy, and also sent down a camera to monitor him, according to Maghreb Arabe Presse.
Short videos of the boy, barely moving, were shared in which he appeared to still be breathing.
Local media reported that there were five bulldozers and dozens of rescuers, including a team of topographers, involved in the effort. The reports said that even a local mountaineering and caving society was taking part.
The rescue efforts were complicated by the nature of the soil in the area, which is a mix of unstable sand and rock, according to local authorities.
Over the past three days, digging had to be suspended several times to avoid a landslide. As the workers drew closer, each scoop of dirt needed to be dug out with extra care.
In an interview with Le360, Rayan’s father said that he had been in the process of fixing the well, which he owns, when his son fell in.
“Everyone is doing their best so that he comes out alive and that we can take him in our arms by the end of the day,” he said.
The tiny village of Ighrane was overrun with reporters, many of them broadcasting live.
The scenes of bulldozers digging under floodlights while thousands of Moroccans waited in suspense made the Arabic hashtag #SaveRayan a viral rallying cry on Twitter.
The hashtag was trending across Morocco and neighboring Algeria, and even in France, where there is a large Moroccan diaspora.
As rescuers struggled to reach the boy, people in the region were glued to the operation on television and online, eager for some good news at a time when many have been buffeted by Covid pandemic gloom.
“I pray and beg God that he comes out of that well alive and safe,” his mother, Wassima Kharchich, told 2M, a Moroccan television network. “Please God, ease my pain and his, in that hole of dust.”
And the rescue effort has proved to be something of a unifying moment for the people of Morocco and Algeria, which have been locked in a feud that some analysts have called a regional cold war. It has dampened the tensions between the two North African countries, as Algerians have flooded social media with messages of solidarity and encouragement for the rescuers.
“Oh, Lord, show us the miracle of your kindness,” the well-known Algerian novelist Ahlam Mostghanmi wrote on Twitter, reposting an image of Rayan. She was among many Algerians who rallied to the hashtag #SaveRayan, including soccer stars, singers and political commentators, as well as ordinary Algerians.
As neighbors in the Maghreb, the Francophone western swath of North Africa along the Mediterranean, Algerians and Moroccans share similar dialects and cross-border family and cultural ties. But their history has been marked by diplomatic spats and military clashes.
In recent years, Morocco has accused Algeria of supporting a separatist group, the Polisario Front, which is contesting Morocco’s territorial claim to a region in the Western Sahara.
Mona El-Naggar contributed reporting from Cairo.