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Swallowed by Sand: A Young Boy Survives After Vanishing Into the Earth

On the shores of Lake Michigan, six-year-old Nathan Woessner disappeared into the earth without a sound.

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 Swallowed by Sand: A Young Boy Survives After Vanishing Into the EarthIllustrations by Dominic Bugatto

The two boys follow their fathers up the sandy incline, scrambling under and through a little cable fence that marks the path. Minutes ago, they were down on the beach, enjoying a July afternoon on Lake Michigan. On vacation together at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the two families were drawn by the main attraction: barren dunes that the waves and winds have deposited on the Great Lake’s eastern bank.

Beckoning most strongly is the steep and impressive 38-metre Mount Baldy, just a stone’s throw from the beach. Greg Woessner and his six-year-old, Nathan, have set off on an impromptu ramble with family friend Keith Karrow and his little boy Colin, age seven. Leaving siblings and spouses on the beach, they frolic toward the summit. A little more than halfway up, Nathan suddenly vanishes.

Colin hollers to the fathers ahead: “Nathan’s gone!” The men whirl around. A moment of befuddlement, followed by rising panic. “He fell in this hole,” Colin says.

There is, in fact, an opening, as smooth as a bore but not even 45 centimetres across. Greg kneels and calls out to his son, and Nathan answers from somewhere in the dark. “I’m scared, Daddy.”

They can’t see him, but they can hear him crying at the bottom of the hole. “He sounds so close,” says Keith. They both dangle their arms down but feel nothing. Next, Greg holds Keith by the ankles and manoeuvres his friend’s entire body deep into the cavity. Keith stretches out his arms in every direction, but he can’t get to Nathan. Greg pulls him back, stands and looks around frantically-for a rope, a stick, anything he can use to reach his son. There’s nothing but sand. He kneels again and starts digging with his bare hands. Keith joins in. Nathan is still crying. “Calm down and be very still,” Greg calls out to him. “I’m coming for you.” And then the hole caves in on itself, the superfine powder rushing to fill the temporary interruption of the mound’s perfect contour. It’s as if the hole and the boy were never there.

Nathan’s mother, Faith, can’t quite understand what Colin has run across the beach to tell her, but it’s clear her son’s in danger, so she sprints the few hundred metres up Mount Baldy until she sees Keith kneeling and clawing at the dune. Greg is walking downhill toward her with a stricken look. “Nathan’s underneath the sand,” he says, reaching for her arm. She screams, pushes him away and runs to the depression the two men have been working at and starts gouging at the hillside. Faith thinks about the Florida man who was recently swallowed by a sinkhole while asleep and was never found. She imagines her son in the dark, terrified, struggling to breathe. Don’t stop digging, she tells herself, don’t stop. The three adults plow furiously, sand in their hair and mouths. They are excruciatingly aware of the seconds ticking away.

But seconds turn to minutes, and the digging is the stuff of nightmares: each time they gain some depth, sand rushes down from uphill, neutralizing their efforts. Still, they work. Keith’s wife, Rachel, has called 9-1-1, and first responders begin to appear on the hillside-police, firefighters, EMTs, none of them carrying a shovel. They, too, kneel and dig. Faith prays; the hole keeps filling back in. Radios crackle, calling for tools, backup, excavators. An hour goes by. “No matter what,” Greg says to Faith, “he’ll go home with us. We’re not leaving here without him.”

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More firefighters show up, this time with shovels. The site now crawls with some 40 people, all desperate to move sand. But even with the tools, at the end of another hour, they have achieved only one and a half metres of depth, with no sign of Nathan. Brad Kreighbaum, a firefighter, keeps yelling at his crewmates not to quit. “What if it was your kid down there?” he shouts. No one will state the obvious, but everyone knows the survival rate of a two-hour burial by sand: they are looking for a body. Streaked with sweat and sand, Faith stands beside the hole, repeating the same solemn intercession: “Lord, give Nathan an air pocket. Let him breathe. Hold him in your arms. Help us find him.”

An excavator appears at the bottom of the dune. The crowd watches its tires wallow, sees the driver struggle to coax the machine uphill and, with a desperate feeling, watches it turn back and disappear down the beach. Another machine appears, a tracked backhoe, and its driver performs utter gymnastics using the mechanical arms to climb the slope. But Faith is terrified. “They’ll cut him in half,” she tells Greg.

One of the firefighters uses a rod to probe the sand before the backhoe operator carefully scrapes away five centimetres at a time. Two larger machines labour up the hill and start pulling the sand aside. News helicopters hang in the sky; out over the lake, the sun reddens and dips. Greg and Faith are ushered off the hill and taken to the police station, where they sit in their swimwear, numbly answering questions about the loss of their boy. 

The man working the probe hits an object a few centimetres down, and the rescuers paw at the sand, certain they’ve found Nathan. But as they dig, he seems to sink away. More probing; more excavator work. Again, they believe they’ve found something. This time, Kreighbaum scoops away a layer of sand to reveal the top of a little blond head. The boy is positioned upright in the dune and has been underground for about four hours; the excavator operator estimates the depth at seven metres.

Gingerly the workers uncover Nathan’s body as far down as his armpits, and Kreighbaum yanks him out, fighting back a swell of grief, overwhelmed by the resemblance to his own little boy. He cradles Nathan in his arms for a few moments, then wipes the sand from his lifeless face before passing the child up the hill. No heartbeat. No breath. Ice-cold. The rescuers drape a tarp over their heads so the news cameras can’t record the grim scene of the boy’s body being carried down the hillside.

At the police station, an officer tells Greg and Faith that their son has been found but won’t say if he’s alive or dead. The couple rush to the hospital. When an EMT approaches them, they don’t hear most of what he says-they’re stunned by the first two words: Nathan’s alive. They’ll piece together the rest of the story later: how, on the way down the beach in the bed of a lifeguard truck, the seemingly deceased boy suddenly began to bleed from a small cut on his face, evidence of a beating heart; how there must have been an air pocket; how, at seven metres deep, the cold sand must have chilled his body, reducing the need for oxygen. Still later, they will learn that the hole was likely the vestigial impression of a rotted-out tree, long since consumed by the ever-shifting dune.

Nathan’s recovery proves no less miraculous. Doctors suction sand from his mouth, his trachea, his lungs; he regains consciousness and begins to speak. Within two weeks, he is home, playing with his three siblings. The brain damage the professionals predicted never appears, although Nathan remembers nothing about his ordeal. The aptly named Faith has her own explanation for her son’s unlikely survival. “God did this for us. He really does answer prayers.”