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1 buried alive, 1 injured while digging sand hole

An ambulance. (Monkey Business Images/Dreamstime/TNS)
May 21, 2024

A family vacation to the sunny beaches of Fort Lauderdale ended on February 20 with the tragic death of Sloan Matterly, age seven, after a hole she had dug collapsed. Her brother Maddox, age nine, was hospitalized for his injuries.

While Sloan’s death may seem like a freak accident, sand collapse deaths are not uncommon. Every year, accidents ranging from broken bones to suffocation deaths are reported across the nation in relation to large holes or tunnels on the beach collapsing. A study conducted by a Harvard Medical School researcher regarding sand collapses on beaches found 52 documented cases over a 10-year period, 31 of which ended in fatalities. Some beaches ban the use of shovels in an attempt to limit these events, while all lifeguards work to educate the public about beach safety beyond the water.

Of the accidents recorded in the Harvard study, the holes that were dug ranged from two to 12 feet deep, with diameters between two to 15 feet. The victims of the collapses ranged in age from two to 21. While it may seem harmless, even a small hole can lead to accidents. Sand, particularly wet sand, can be surprisingly heavy.

In the event of a collapse, the weight of the sand can make it impossible for people, particularly young children, to move, free themselves, or breathe due to the pressure on their chests. Dry sand is hard to displace and easily inhaled, which can lead to breathing difficulties.

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These conditions contributed to Sloan’s death. When rescue crews arrived on the beach at around 3 p.m., they discovered Maddox partially buried, while Sloan was trapped entirely under the sand, according to ABC News. The children had reportedly dug a hole that was between five to six feet deep when the collapse occurred. Despite bystanders’ attempts to free the children and the fast response of rescue workers, Sloan was unresponsive when uncovered. She was transported to a local hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

To avoid these accidents, lifeguards stress that beach goers should not dig any holes wider than one foot in diameter, and no deeper than the knee of the shortest person in the group. For the safety of everyone, ensure that any hole you dig is refilled before leaving the beach.