Following the death of a Maine man in a sand collapse on a New Jersey beach earlier this month, local officials are focused on preventing similar incidents on Massachusetts beaches this summer.
“We’re going to talk about that incident when we have our training,” said Gordon Miller, North District Lifeguard Supervisor for the Cape Cod National Seashore. “That is one of the big things we talk about, anyway.”
Levi Caverly, 18, was digging a hole in the sand with his 17-year-old sister when the sand collapsed, according to The Boston Globe. Caverly died in the collapse, and his sister was saved.
Miller, who has been on the job for 37 years, said sand collapses have happened on the Cape Cod National Seashore.
“We’ve had several of those events,” said Miller. “No deaths. But cave-ins.”
Lifeguards enforce the following rule, Miller said: Beach-goers can only dig as knee deep as the shortest person in their group.
“We see someone digging and what we do is we go over and speak to that group,” Miller said. “If they have, say, a 2-year-old, that’s going to be about maybe a foot deep. They can make it as wide as they want, but the depth will only be knee deep as the shortest person in their group.”
Bradley A. Maron, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, completed a study about collapsing sand holes, outlined in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007. He examined 52 incidents of collapsing sand holes — nine of them in New England — and found that 60 percent resulted in death. The collapses were triggered by digging, tunneling, jumping, or falling into the holes and the victims ranged in age from 3 to 21 years old.
Maron’s interest in the topic was sparked from his time spent lifeguarding on Martha’s Vineyard during college when a little girl was rescued from a hole in the sand.
“These are not isolated events,” said Maron, a father of two. “They occur with regular and predictable pattern every summer in the United States. We know that preventing them requires awareness and not digging.”
In his study, the most common setting for the accidents was a public beach in a coastal area, and the holes were generally between 2 and 12 feet deep and dug by the victim, friends, or relatives.
“Not all of these holes are giant, so it’s possible to get yourself into a dangerous situation even when the hole itself doesn’t appear to be one that strikes a specific risk,” Maron said.
Parents often feel a false sense of security when their kids are playing in the sand rather than in the water because they think of the sand as a risk-free zone, Maron said, which isn’t true.
The study described what can happen when a child is caught in a sand collapse: “Typically, victims became completely submerged in the sand when the walls of the hole unexpectedly collapsed, leaving virtually no evidence of the hole or the location of the victim.”
When sand collapses on someone, it’s not as easy as one may think to pull them out, Miller said.
“If you dig a four-foot hole and a four-foot person falls in it head-first, that person is in real, real trouble,” Miller said. “It’s a life-threatening situation. You think you can just walk over and pull them up, but you can’t. The sand grabs you. There’s like a suction there. It’s holding them in.”
Lifeguards are even more on guard for sand collapse incidents on overcast days, Miller said. When the weather is overcast, kids tend to play in the sand more than in the water.
Caverly and his sister were digging during the off-season when there were no lifeguards on duty at the New Jersey beach, according to The Boston Globe. In Maron’s study, those who survived the sand collapses benefited from timely rescues.
It’s a good idea for families to frequent beaches where lifeguards are on duty, Miller said, and they should feel free to ask lifeguards any questions they may have about beach and water safety.
It’s also a good idea to fill in any abandoned holes you find on the beach to prevent potential problems for your group and others, Maron said.
“These are totally preventable events and there’s plenty of opportunity to have fun on the beach and in the water, under safe conditions, that don’t require digging holes,” Maron said. “Although the risk is probably low, it’s not worth taking.”
Daily lifeguard service begins June 16 at the six Cape Cod National Seashore beaches: Coast Guard Beach and Nauset Light Beach in Eastham; Marconi Beach in Wellfleet; Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro; and Race Point Beach and Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown.