Distributed April 18, 2001
For Immediate Release
News Service Contact: Scott Turner

Study finds holes dug in dry-sand beach can collapse and suffocate

Digging holes in dry sand, a frequent activity for children during a day at the beach, carries a risk of sudden death and other dangers, says a Brown University medical student whose study appears in the current Journal of the American Medical Association.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A tranquil beach day can turn tragic when a large hole dug by a child in dry sand collapses and swallows the youngster, according to a new study of such catastrophes.

“It’s probably the last thing on the mind of parents,” said lead author Bradley A. Maron, a second-year student in the Brown Medical School. “This study is not meant to eclipse water safety or other beach concerns. But we want parents to know that something completely recreational can lead to instant tragedy.”

The study appears in the current Journal of the American Medical Association. Maron and co-author Barry J. Maron, M.D., of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, chronicled seven cases in the United States between 1997 and 2000 of collapsed holes dug by individuals in dry sand at the beach.

In each instance, a person was submerged suddenly when hole walls collapsed. In the majority of cases, the individual vanished from sight leaving little or no trace beneath what appeared as undisturbed sand.

In four of the seven accidents, individuals suffocated and died. The three survivors faced life-threatening circumstances, but were rescued by lifeguards and beachgoers who dug frantically by hand to expose the submerged bodies. Within 3 to 10 minutes, digging created air pockets around the nose and mouth of survivors. Five minutes without oxygen can lead to brain damage and even death.

Accident victims ranged in age from 8 to 21. Six of the seven victims were male. The holes were between three and 15 feet in diameter and between three and nine feet deep. They were dug by hand or with beach toys.

In five of seven cases, the holes were dug as part of recreational activities. In the other two cases, the holes were present prior to the accidents. Before the incidents, two people were at the bottom of holes prior to their collapse. The others either fell or jumped in, triggering a collapse of the walls. Six of the seven incidents occurred on Atlantic-coast public beaches less than 20 feet from the surf-line. The other incident took place in a backyard.

The researchers identified the accidents through media accounts and in conversations with friends and colleagues. Details were gathered through telephone and personal interviews with rescuers and other witnesses.

The dangers of construction-site holes are well known and subject to safety guidelines. “However, similar serious but largely unrecognized dangers, including sudden death, may be associated with innocent-appearing recreational beach activities,” wrote the authors. To date, “the risks and threats to the recreational safety of children associated with dry-sand holes have achieved little attention in the general public and medical community,” they said.

Beach dangers associated with water, such as drowning, are widely publicized, Maron said. A few beaches also post warning signs about digging. “We don’t know how often this type of dry-sand incident happens, but we believe that it is rare,” he said. “However, we think it is safe to say that there is some danger on land at the beach as well as in the water.

“When sand reclaims its natural form, it severely limits rescue capability. You can’t use a metal shovel if you don’t know where a person is. You can kill an individual by jamming in a shovel blindly. And as you dig by hand, the sand continues to fill in around the excavation. The three individuals survived because of prompt, heroic actions of rescuers.”

The researchers hope to build a registry of dry-sand beach hole collapses. They don’t want to frighten beachgoers, but suggest that parents shed lax or cavalier attitudes toward safety on the sand.

“If a child digs a wide, deep hole, as a parent, you’re dealing with potential tragedy,” Maron said. “Such a situation demands parental supervision.”