Sand Cave-In

To avoid being swept out to sea, you’ve been told to never turn your back on incoming ocean waves. Watching the tide is good advice, however the shifting sand beneath your feet can be just as dangerous.

On July 31, 2017, a woman’s body was found buried in a hole on the beach in Ocean City, New Jersey. Vacationing with her parents, she separated from them about 2 a.m. Police said she died of asphyxiation when the sand hole she fell in collapsed around her, blocking her air flow.

Three years ago, on August 29, 2014, a 9-year old girl died after a sand cave-in collapsed on the Oregon Coast, trapping her beneath the sand.

Grains of sand smoothed by wind and water are like miniature marbles. Holes dug in moist beach sand after the tide has receded retain their shape until the sand dries and its structural integrity gets weaker, causing it to collapse suddenly when disturbed.

Anyone falling into a collapsing sand hole is in a helpless position. Any movement to escape will cause the hole to collapse further, eventually burying the body if the hole is deep enough. Because sand is heavier than water, the muscles of the chest wall may not be able to overcome the pressure of sand to allow the victim to breath. Exhaling will cause more sand to squeeze in on the body, causing the victim to suffocate.

Emergency First Responders Rush Against Time

Drowning in inhaled sand is like drowning in water. After a few minutes without oxygen, a victim loses consciousness, and the heart rate drops and then stops. Because death can occur in fewer than 10 minutes, emergency responders must work fast. First responders immediately clear everyone from the scene because their weight and vibrations will cause the sand to keep drifting into the hole. Rescuers then surround the area around the victim with backboards, surf rescue boards, or even body boards to prevent sand from sliding back onto the victim from the weight of the responders as they start the difficult digging process to first locate the head of the victim.

Rescuers then insert a breathing tube and administer IV fluids. If that doesn’t work, they will insert a tiny camera via a breathing tube directly into the victim’s airway to see if sand is in the lungs. If sand or swelling in the lungs prevents oxygen from entering, using an advanced procedure, blood is passed out of the body through a machine to bypass the lungs, providing oxygen to the body.

According to a 2007 report in the New England Journal of Medicine, 52 cases of collapsing sand holes during a 10-year period resulted in 31 deaths in the 12 U.S. states examined. Some believe that death from sand hole collapse may be even more frequent than reported.

Because the outcome for victims fully buried is poor, prevention of sand holes is always the best approach to avoid this disaster. Children and adults need to fill the holes they dig, and a sand hole should never be deeper than the height of the knees of the shortest member of the group.

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