No way was I going to write on this subject again. I didn’t want anyone to think it was a case of senility, and that I am the stereotypical oldster boring his guests with the same story all over again. Even though I am quite capable of and experienced at doing that. So I figured I’d let this season drift by without telling the same tale again.
But then I thought of how awful it would be to have to picture in my mind forever the unending agony of parents who have lost a child to an accident in the midst of the happiest of family times. And, worse, to have to keep imagining the terror of a child locked in blackness, squeezed to death, all alone, unable even to gasp, with lungs pleading with silent screams for air. And to know I might have, just possibly, helped prevent it.
I’ll try to be brief. Ten years ago, my then-3-year-old grandson, standing on a Florida beach with his parents and other family members, disappeared from sight. Like magic. There one moment, gone the next. There was frantic searching, shouting for him, pleading with lifeguards for help, running into the ocean to scan the waves, just in case. Then a young woman looked away from the water and noticed an indentation in the sand. She ran over and began digging, soon shouting that he was there. She’d felt curls mixed with sand, well below the surface. His father and others dug, praying all the while.
What had happened is all too common, yet strangely not widely known. Beach sand cave-ins kill more people than shark attacks, most of the victims quite young, although some teenagers and young adults succumb as well. Beach sand is swift and murderously persistent if it flows in over you, so a collapsed hole or tunnel, dug for pleasure, becomes a grave. Rescue is difficult and often impossible. And perhaps never even attempted in cases where the victim falls unnoticed into a hole carelessly left by others.
If your child digs a hole in the sand, it should be limited to half the height of the child. If your older child digs a tunnel or cave, he should be redirected and the project closed, because those things cave in. And they kill. A 12-year-old boy in California just died 2 days ago after having a sand dune fall in on him when he had dug into the side of it. Similar mishaps have taken place recently, not always leading to death, but leading to severe damage.
If your family members or others around you dig in the sand, a natural pleasure on the beach, please have them fill in the holes before leaving the area. But be careful when encouraging strangers to take this precaution. Perhaps feeling the same right many assume they have to leave their litter along roadways and in public places, some are outraged by any suggestion that they should straighten up after themselves and possibly save the life of an innocent child. It was one of those carelessly abandoned diggings that my grandson fell into and was buried well below the surface for a period long enough that it was assumed he’d be dead or permanently disabled when finally pulled to the surface.
Last year the young woman who dug down and touched Rob’s curls under the sand, along with her husband and family members, met with my daughter and her family and other relatives on the same beach in Florida where they’d first met on that horrifying Sunday afternoon nine years before. A photograph shows a smiling young woman of average height standing with a slender young fellow, the finder and the found. He is clearly three inches taller than she is. Today, now 13 years old and suffering no ill effects, he would be a good half foot taller, when he might so easily have died with no chance ever to reach such growth. His family still shudders at the thought of how close that came to being, had their toddler not somehow miraculously survived long enough to be discovered and pulled to the surface by praying, desperate searchers.
Enjoy your time on the beach. Don’t let anyone die in the sand.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”