NEW DELHI – All of India rejoiced on Sunday as the prayers offered by Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and Muslims were answered: Soldiers rescued a young boy from a deep irrigation shaft after a 50-hour ordeal.
Wrapped in a white towel, the boy, identified only as Prince, emerged dazed but unhurt from the 60-foot-deep hole in the arms of a soldier. At the sight, thousands who had gathered around the hole erupted in cheers.
The complex operation captured the imagination of millions who watched live TV broadcasts and sparked prayers in churches, mosques and temples across the county. Most TV channels suspended regular coverage Sunday to devote nearly all air time to the rescue effort.
The story broke into national prominence after the private Zee News channel lowered a camera into the pit and captured haunting images of a child crying helplessly in the dark.
"Ever since I saw him on your channel yesterday, I have been crying. I can't think of anything else. He is a brave child, I would not have survived if I was in his place," said Shashi Jain, a caller to Zee News, her voice choked with emotion.
"May God add the remaining years of my life to this little boy's life," she added.
Prince fell into the freshly dug hole Friday evening when he was playing in Aldeharhi, a village in the northern state of Haryana. The shaft, covered only with an empty jute sack, was just wide enough to fit the boy and too narrow for an adult.
When villagers and local police could not pull him out, they sought the help of the army.
Over two days, soldiers from an engineering regiment scooped out drums of mud from an abandoned well 10 feet away from the hole, taking care not to use heavy machinery so soil would not cave in on the boy.
Oxygen was pumped into the pit and rescuers talked to the boy to keep his morale up.
Rescuers and TV viewers alike could watch the boy looking around timidly, munching on chocolate and biscuits and drinking milk from a can that had been lowered in by rope.
With their bare hands, soldiers then created a pipe-reinforced connecting passageway to the irrigation shaft. One soldier reached Prince and, along with four others, took him back through the pipe and up the abandoned well.
Making a gripping story even better, Prince was rescued on his birthday. Zee News reported Prince turned 5 on Sunday, while some other news outlets claimed he turned 6.
Through the night, Zee News received thousands of phone calls from anxious viewers, including children who called up and demanded to speak to Prince.
Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was moved by the boy's story. An official in his office was quoted by the Press Trust of India news agency as saying Singh "prays for the speedy rescue and good health" of Prince and will pay for his medical needs.
Other politicians were not so helpful. They rushed to the scene, pressing army and police officials for details. TV stations said that posturing delayed the rescue effort.