Ocean City Today

Beach holes can turn deadly with cave-ins

By Katie Tabeling | Aug 10, 2017
Courtesy of: Kristin Joson

(Aug. 11, 2017) Digging a hole in the sand is an innocent activity for beachgoers, but it also can turn dangerous, or deadly, if it gets too deep and starts to collapse on the digger.

“There’s four things that people can die from quickly on the beach: rip currents, lightning, neck injuries and sand holes,” Beach Patrol Capt. Butch Arbin said this week. “Sand holes are a bigger problem than people think, mainly because it can happen so suddenly.”

Ashley O’Connor of Plano, Texas, was found buried in a hole on Ocean City’s beach early morning on July 31. One of Ocean City Police’s theories is that the hole caved in on O’Connor, suffocating her in sand.

Holes dug on beaches react differently than ones in dirt because of the sand’s texture. The sand is loose, smooth and does not hold up well on a slope. Arbin added that sand holds moisture for a little while, but ultimately dries relatively quickly.

“A hole dug around 10 a.m. holds up because of the moisture. But over the course of the day, that evaporates and becomes less stable,” he said. “It’s a domino effect. A bump from someone’s arm can start a cave-in pretty quickly. Sometimes, cave-ins happen with no outside disturbance at all.”

Three other serious incidents with beach holes have occurred in Arbin’s 45 years with Ocean City Beach Patrol. One was fatal. Years ago, a 12-year-old boy dug a hole on the beach near 101st Street. Ultimately, he suffocated.

The two other incidents, including a 4-year-old girl who vanished in a hole her family dug and a 9-year-old boy who combined two small holes, were saved in time.

“Every case, people knew where the hole was,” Arbin said. “The cave-ins can happen quickly and dramatically.”

The Town of Ocean City has an ordinance that allows Beach Patrol the authority to remove a person from the beach for “hole digging of a size which could engulf and bury a person.” But the issue isn’t people digging while lifeguards are in the stands; it’s that the holes often appear overnight.

“We see people come out on night and dig holes big enough to go to China. When our surf rescue technicians do ordinance checks and they see hole digging, they’ll ensure that it’s knee deep. If it’s not, they’ll stay there until the diggers cover it up,” Arbin said. “They’ll check the area before leaving the beach for the day and kick in any holes they see.”

The 12-year-old boy who suffocated years earlier went onto the beach around 7 p.m. to dig what turned out to be his own grave.

The Beach Patrol prepares for beach hole cave-ins by burying CPR dummies and basketballs on the beach as part of training exercises. Beach Patrol officials said that takes roughly 40 people a half-hour to free a buried victim, no matter how small the hole.

“The procedure is that a group of surf rescue technicians form a circle and start digging straight down. They push the sand back, where the second ring pushes it back, and so on,” Arbin said. “The normal tendency is to dig straight down, but that sand can fall back in. We can go pretty deep quickly, and luckily EMS is on scene at that point.”

Before it gets to the point where rescue is needed, beachgoers are reminded to keep sand holes a safe depth, never leave them unattended and fill them before they leave.

As always, Beach Patrol reminds visitors to always keep your feet in the sand until the lifeguard’s in the stand from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

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