Dear people, thank you so much for your very kind and compassionate responses to this post. I just want to make sure new readers know that this occurred six years ago (July 8, 2007). My family is doing well now – we did work through the lingering effects of post-traumatic shock, and we continue to celebrate the happy outcome, cherish our two sons, and remain grateful for Erika Weiland, who saved our son’s life. One of the ways I try to honor the grace we were given on the beach that day is to get the word out about this kind of accident and how to prevent it.
After our accident, I learned that sandhole collapses are a more frequent occurrence than I would’ve dreamed, and that the majority of them end in death. There are four easy things you can do to prevent such a tragedy:
1. When you arrive at the beach, always check nearby for any holes left by others, and fill them in.
2. Do not dig holes any deeper than knee-high of the shortest person in your group. Yeah, I know this sounds extreme. If this feels more extreme than your group can accommodate then perhaps you can at least stop at waist-high.
3. If you do dig holes, fill them in before you leave. The hole my son fell in had been left by other children.
4. Make sure any children you go to the beach with know that holes and trenches can be dangerous, and that they should let you know if they see any abandoned holes.
Thank you for reading, and for helping spread the word.
I knew my blogging would be sporadic while on vacation, but I had not intended to take a hiatus for this long. Life intervened. A week ago tonight, my family sustained an enormous trauma and near tragedy. Miraculously, all ended well. As life is slowly turning back towards “normal,” I am feeling more energy to put into words what happened, and I find I need to, more and more. What follows is the story of how we almost lost Little Buddha, and how a total stranger saved his life. I have decided to break with my usual blogging habit and use everyone’s real names. The telling of this story seems to demand it.
Last Sunday, on our next-to-last night at Santa Rosa Beach, our family headed down to the beach – me, Paul (My Old Man), Rob (Little Buddha), Charlie (Tiny Dancer), My Old Man’s daughter S, her husband L, and their baby J. The red flag was up, indicating hazardous water conditions, so I had already decided we would only play in the sand. When we got to our usual spot, not very far from the lifeguard tower, we began setting up our chairs, right along the ledge where the soft sand drops to the packed sand. I was setting up chairs while Paul watched Rob and Charlie play in the sand about 6 feet away. I asked Paul a question about the chairs and he turned to answer me. Within seconds, I became aware of only one child in my peripheral vision. I turned to look directly, and did not see Rob. A quick scan of the beach in all directions was enough to let us all know that he was nowhere he could’ve gotten in that very brief period of time. We immediately thought he had been swept out by the water (we were somewhat close to the water, and I feared Rob had somehow accidentally backed into it – he is afraid of the water and would never go into it on his own).
I screamed for help while Paul ran out into the water to search for him. Many people came to help us, some assuring us that he had probably just wandered away. I tried to flag the lifeguards two or three times, without success. Paul’s daughter ran to get them, and they proceeded to treat it as a “child wanders off” situation, telling us “this happens all the time” and not to panic. I knew how quickly he had disappeared and was certain something terrible had happened. (I am grateful for that certainty, because in the end it turned out that time was of the essence and if I had not quickly gotten so many people to help us look for him in the immediate area he had been, we would not have been able to save him).
For five horrifying minutes we searched the water and the beach, with no luck. I knew it was long enough by this point that there was basically no hope of his still being alive (assuming he was in the water). My one hope was that the waves would bring his body back to us, because I could not imagine leaving the beach without him. A young woman who had been helping with the search suddenly noticed a sort of indentation in the ledge of soft sand, just a few feet from our chairs. She asked if it had been there when we arrived. I didn’t know. She stuck her hands in and began to dig a bit – and felt his head. She, my husband, and several others started digging and were able to pull him out – alive, and totally okay. Totally okay. I had not been able to watch them dig him up, because I was so afraid he was dead – it had been five minutes or more! – and I could not bear to see his little body brought up dead, and I could not bear for Charlie to see it either. It seemed to take so long for them to dig his head out (probably a minute, though) and then someone called to me – “He’s all right!”
I still don’t know how he survived being totally buried (8-10 inches above his head) for more than 5 minutes in the sand. Perhaps there was an air pocket? Perhaps he had somehow fallen in with his hand over his mouth? We have no idea. His eyes and mouth were closed when he was pulled up, and we think perhaps he had passed out, but he fairly quickly opened his eyes and began to cry. He had no sand in his nose or mouth. After the EMTs checked him out, we went to the hospital for a chest x-ray and it showed he had no sand in his lungs either. We realize we are exceptionally fortunate – not only to have found him, but to have found him alive and okay. I would never have thought to look in the sand for him, and if the young woman helping us search had not noticed the indentation and thought to look there, we surely would have lost him for good.
What we have been able to piece together in retrospect, based on what Rob has been able to tell us, is that there was a hole there (the woman who discovered him remembered seeing some boys digging a hole in that area not long before we arrived), and that he stepped in it (either accidentally or on purpose, we are not sure – he says he fell in). As soon as he was in it, it caved in (in his words: “I fell in a hole. The sand kept coming in. The hole closed, and it locked. I don’t like to be locked.”) He was in a crouching position when he was dug up, and I get the impression from his acting out of things that perhaps his legs buckled beneath him (as a very cautious and not particularly physically adept child, he is not a jumper – I cannot imagine him jumping into the hole and landing in a crouch position). I think the collapse happened immediately. What Paul and I cannot figure out is if the hole was already as deep as it was when we found him (in a crouching position with 8-10 inches of sand over him), or if the hole somehow sunk beneath him as soon as he stepped in. Given that the hole was in the ledge of soft sand, we have wondered if the tide somehow had hollowed out some of the sand beneath the hole, so that when he stepped in the floor of it dropped.
At the time, we thought it was a “freak accident,” and the hospital personnel certainly treated it as such (after ruling out foul play). Later that night, I googled “buried in sand” to see if anyone else had experienced such a thing. First I found this. Then I googled “buried in sand death” – and I discovered that just two weeks before Rob’s accident, a physician in Boston had a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine about just this thing, sand hole collapses. I was shocked by his findings, which the AP picked up (you can read a summary here). I have been in extensive conversation with Dr. Maron since Rob’s accident, and the conversations have driven home even more how very fortunate we are. Last summer, a woman in Australia was at the beach with her child. She walked to the water’s edge to wash something off, and when she turned around, her child was gone. The lifeguards and others treated it as a child abduction situation, and began a full search of the beach. Sometime later, someone remembered seeing the child playing in a hole in the sand. People began to dig, and discovered the child, who was dead. In 60% of these kind of accidents, the victim dies – I imagine that number is even higher if the accident is not witnessed (as was the case for us).
The fact that we not only found Rob, but got him back alive and totally okay (no brain damage, for instance) is astounding and overwhelming beyond words, and we are living in the amazement and gratitude for what feels like a miracle (and for our personal angel, Erika Orlando, the woman who found him and, by doing so, saved his life – and ours). At the same time, it is hard to describe my other reality – the fact that for many minutes I was living with the horror and grief of thinking my little boy was dead. Those emotions and that fear got somehow seared into my mind and heart, and it has been hard to come fully back from those moments.
Still, every moment I get to kiss that sweet face, hug that sturdy body, smell those golden curls, and hear that little voice feels like a miracle all over again. I am beyond grateful.
It may be awhile before I return to my regular blogging, or to my regular blogging topics. I still feel fragile and vulnerable and a bit consumed with what happened that afternoon at the beach. I wanted to let you, my internet friends, know what my family has been through and why my blog may “go dark” for a bit. The earth swallowed up my little boy, and we somehow got him back.
[For an update, read here.]