The Boy Who Disappeared Under a Sand Dune

Colin hollers, "Nathan fell in this hole!" And then the hole collapses in on itself, the sugar sand rushing to smooth and fill the temporary interruption of the dune's perfect contour. It is as if the hole and the boy had never been.

By Derek Burnett
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine August 2014

boy buried in sandPhotographs by Claire Benoist, Michigan City Fire Department/News Dispatch/AP Photo, The Woessner Famiy/The University of Chicago Hospital/AP Photo

The two little boys follow their fathers up the sand dune, 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. But this is the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the two families are on vacation together, and the big draw is the massive, barren sand dunes that the waves and winds have deposited on the Great Lake’s eastern shore. Beckoning most strongly is the steep, impressive, 126-foot Mount Baldy, just a stone’s throw from the beach. Greg Woessner and his six-year-old son, Nathan, have decided on an impromptu ramble with Keith Karrow and his little boy Colin, age seven, family friends. Leaving siblings and spouses on the beach, they frolic their way toward the summit. Then, a little more than halfway up, Nathan vanishes.

Colin hollers ahead to the fathers. “Nathan fell!”

The men whirl around. Nathan is gone. A moment of befuddlement, mixed with a rising panic. “He fell in this hole,” Colin says.

There is, in fact, a hole, as smooth as a bore but not even 18 inches across. Greg kneels and calls out to his son, and Nathan answers from somewhere down in that dark: “I’m scared!”

They can’t see him. They dangle their arms down into the hole and feel only emptiness. What is this? What has just happened? Greg stands and looks around, for a rope, a stick, anything to reach his son. There is nothing but sand. So he kneels again and starts digging with his bare hands. Keith joins in, a frantic pawing at the loose sand. “We’re going to get you out,” Greg says. And then the hole collapses in on itself, the sugar sand rushing to smooth and fill the temporary interruption of the dune’s perfect contour. It is as if the hole and the boy had never been.

Nathan’s mother, Faith Woessner, can’t quite understand what Colin has run across the beach to tell her, but it’s clear that Nathan is in danger, so she sprints the couple of hundred yards up the side of Mount Baldy until she can see Keith kneeling and digging at the sand and Greg walking downhill toward her with a stricken look. “Nathan has fallen,” he says. “We can’t find him. He’s under the sand.” She runs to the depression they’ve been working at and starts gouging at the sand. The three of them dig furiously, excruciatingly aware of the seconds ticking away. “Lord, please give him an air pocket,” Faith prays. “Please help my little boy to breathe. Please help us find him.”

But seconds turn to minutes, and the digging is the stuff of nightmares: Each time they gain some depth, sand rushes down from uphill, undoing the better part of their efforts. Still they dig. Keith’s wife, Rachel, has called 911, and as the minutes drag by, first responders appear on the hillside—police, firefighters, EMTs, none of them carrying a shovel. They, too, kneel and dig. Faith is still praying; the hole keeps filling back in. Radios crackle: tools, backup, excavators. An hour has gone by.

More firefighters show up, 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 five feet of depth, with no sign of Nathan. No one will state the obvious, but everyone knows that you do not survive burial in sand for two hours: They are looking for a body. But streaked with sweat and sand, Faith stands beside the hole, the same prayer on her lips: “Give him an air pocket. Let him breathe. Hold him in your arms. Help us find him.”

An excavator appears at the bottom of the dune. They watch its tires wallow, see the driver struggle to coax the machine uphill, and, with a desperate feeling, watch it turn back and disappear down the beach. They dig. Faith goes on praying. Another machine appears, a tracked backhoe, and its driver performs utter gymnastics using its arms to pull itself up the slope. But when it arrives, Faith is terrified. “They’ll cut him in half,” she tells Greg.

A firefighter is using a rod to probe the sand before the backhoe operator carefully scrapes away two inches at a time. Two larger machines labor 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 down 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 inches down and they 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, sure enough, a firefighter scoops away a layer of sand to reveal the top of the little boy’s blond head. He is positioned upright in the dune and has been underground for about four hours; an excavator operator estimates the depth at 23 feet. Gingerly they uncover the body as far down as the armpits, and the firefighter lifts it out, fighting back a swell of grief, overwhelmed by the resemblance to his own little boy. He wipes the sand from the lifeless face and passes the child up and out of the hole. No heartbeat. No breath. Ice cold. His colleagues drape a tarp over their heads so the news cameras won’t record the grisly scene of Nathan’s little body being carried down the hillside. The sun finishes its setting in a spectacular display over the lake.

At the police station, an officer tells Greg and Faith that their son has been found but won’t tell them if he’s alive or dead. The two rush to the hospital and sit in a waiting area until an EMT enters. They don’t hear most of what he says, because they are stopped short by the first two words: He’s alive. The rest of it they’ll piece together later: how, on the way down the beach in the bed of a lifeguard truck, the seemingly lifeless boy who had been buried under 20 feet of sand 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 the cold sand at that depth must have so cooled his body as to reduce demand 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-moving dune.

And Nathan’s recovery proves no less miraculous than his survival. Doctors suction sand from his mouth, his trachea, his lungs; he regains consciousness, begins to speak. Within two weeks, he is home playing with his siblings. The brain damage half-expected by the professionals never appears, although Nathan remembers nothing about his ordeal. The impossibility of it is vexing, but not to the aptly named Faith, who has her own explanation: “God did this for us. He really does answer prayers. This is God’s miracle.”

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