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Why Digging Holes at the Beach Is So Dangerous, Especially for Kids

A 7-year-old girl was killed on a Florida beach this week when the sand hole she and her brother were playing in collapsed on the children, who were vacationing with their parents. 

According to news reports, the Indiana family was visiting Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, a small beachfront community near Fort Lauderdale, when the 4-to-5-foot-deep hole collapsed on the kids, burying the boy up to his chest and completely covering his sister. A group of about 20 adults attempted to dig her out using their hands and plastic pails, but the hole kept collapsing in on itself.

The beach at Lauderdale-by-the-Sea is not staffed with lifeguards, and emergency personnel were unable to reach the girl in time. 

The tragedy underscores an often overlooked coastal danger to which children are especially vulnerable. 

Digging a hole in the sand may be a common pastime—and a curiously primal impulse—on beach days. But according to South Florida’s Sun Sentinel, “Deaths by sand-hole collapse are more common than people think, outnumbering shark attacks.”

The problem, the newspaper explains, is that wet sand collapses as it dries out, so if the hole is several feet deep, it can quickly bury someone inside, pinning down arms and legs, making it difficult for lungs to expand, and, in the worst cases, covering noses and mouths. 

Sand is heavy and dense when clustered in large quantities, permitting no air pockets and making rescue difficult. 

Though deaths and injuries from caved-in holes at beaches are rare, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that most victims are under the age of 21. 

To minimize the risk, lifeguards in many coastal locations will prevent beachgoers from digging any deeper than the waist or knee height of the shortest person in the group. 

Unfortunately, there weren’t any lifeguards to stop the digging that led to the death in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, yet another alarm bell rung by the ongoing lifeguard shortage in the United States.

If you can find a beach with a lifeguard on duty, it’s always safest to take your family to one of those. 

But whether or not there’s a lifeguard to keep an eye on things, stop anyone in your party from digging a hole in the sand that goes deeper than the knees of whomever is standing inside, the National Park Service advises

Remember as well that abandoned sand holes can cause injury to other beachgoers, trip up emergency vehicles driving on the sand, or cause harm to sea turtles. So if you must dig a hole, fill it back in before you leave the beach. 

Other beach safety tips:

How to avoid a shark bite

What to do after a jellyfish sting