Out for an afternoon in the Spanish countryside on Sunday, two parents were preparing lunch when their 2-year-old son slipped into a hole. They heard the toddler’s echoing cries as he plummeted into darkness — more than 30 stories — then silence.
That silence has consumed the country of 46 million people as a legion of rescuers contends with two crucial questions:
How can they reach the boy?
Is it already too late?
The tragedy happened as the family of three — Julen, whose name has also been spelled “Yulen,” and his parents, José Rosello and Vicky García — was setting up for a paella picnic with friends in Totalan, a small town on the southern coast of Spain, according to Britain’s Daily Express.
Julen fell into a possibly unmarked hole bored by someone searching for a spot to dig a well, authorities have said. The hole is 360 feet deep, but only 15 inches at its widest spot — big enough for a toddler to slip into, but not his parents or rescuers racing against a ticking clock.
Videos and photos of the scene showed harness-wearing rescue worker crawling into the mouth of the hole, supported by a cable.
On Monday, rescuers lowered a small robot into the hole. It recovered a bag of candy and a plastic cup the boy had been holding when he fell, but it was not able to capture any videos or sounds of the child.
Two days later, they received more grisly evidence that the boy is somewhere in the hole after pulling up some of his hair, according to the network Euronews. DNA tests confirmed that the hair belongs to Julen.
Family members and more than 100 rescue workers continued to hold out hope that the boy was alive, perhaps trapped in an air pocket. They remain blind to the deepest parts of the hole.
According to the Daily Mail, there is a blockage about 250 feet beneath the surface, perhaps caused by a mini landslide as the boy tumbled. Around that depth, the hole gets slimmer, too small for even the robot to get past.
Authorities spent the past three days working on multiple plans to get to the boy. They’re trying to determine whether they can safely widen the hole to let a robot or, possibly, a rescuer go deeper, Pilar Limon, a spokesman for the Emergencies Coordination Unit, told NBC News. Authorities are also trying to determine whether they can dig a tunnel that intersects the well.
They worry about unknown factors that lie beyond the reach of the camera’s lens: a plug of sand atop water of an uncertain depth.
Julen’s parents, whose first son, Oliver, died of a reported congenital heart defect at age 3, join a reluctant fraternity of families cast into the glare of international spotlight after their children were trapped below ground.
In 1987, 18-month-old Jessica McClure fell down a 22-foot hole in her grandmother’s backyard in Midland, Tex., and was stuck for 58 hours before rescuers were able to pull her out of the eight-inch-wide hole.
And last summer, the Wild Boars soccer team — 12 boys, none of whom could swim, and their 25-year-old coach — were rescued from a cave by divers who guided the 12- to 16-year-old boys through passages as narrow as a couple of feet.
In Spain this week, Julen’s parents, sequestered in a tent as they await news, are praying for his older brother to watch over him from heaven.
“Oliver, don’t forget your brother, Julen,” his mother wrote on social media, according to the Express. “You know we’ve been waiting for him for many hours. I know you protect him a lot, my little King.”
Later, she posted another picture of a sleeping baby: “If it’s true that there’s a God up there,” she wrote, “help him please.
“Hold on Julen.”