It’s a quiet danger that can turn a fun day at the beach into tragedy.
A seemingly harmless hole dug by a beach goer can be a deadly trap – a place where walls are quick to crumble, but powerful enough to suffocate a person buried inside.
A dramatic rescue late Friday in south Laguna highlights the dangers of getting trapped in a sand hole. It’s a threat many who flock to the coastline are unaware of, but lifeguards hope knowledge of it will help save a life.
“It’s one of those dangers people don’t realize,” said OC Lifeguards Capt. Brad Herzog, the agency that oversees Aliso Beach. “People think it’s silly when we tell them not to dig a hole.
“A lot of people aren’t aware of the danger it poses.”
A young boy – about 6 or 7 years old – ran into a hole that was about 4-feet deep at Aliso Beach. The sand around him collapsed, burying him up to his nose.
“It sounded like his nose was just above the sand and he was able to breathe,” Herzog said. “Our lifeguards were able to dig around his mouth and get his airway open so they could dig him out.”
Orange County Fire Authority and Laguna Beach Fire Department showed up to help, carving a trench closer to the water line to divert the ocean so it wouldn’t flood the boy’s face.
The county beach – like many others along the Southern California coastline – has an ordinance restricting holes deeper than two feet. The general rule is to never dig a hole deeper than your knees.
It was Aliso Beach’s first major sand burial incident, but one of several that has happened along the coast in previous years.
A frantic search
Last July, a 3-year-old boy went missing in West Newport near 40th street.
Moments before, he had been playing with other kids, digging a hole near shore. The next second, he was buried alive, gone from sight.
Had it not been for an observant bystander who overheard the frantic mother and remembered the boy being near the hole minutes before, the toddler may not have survived.
On a hunch, Jesse Martin mobilized beach goers around him to start digging.
“After a couple big scoops I felt him under there,” Martin, who was visiting from Arizona, said in a previous interview with the Orange County Register.
The boy was white and blue when they pulled him from the sand. Other beach goers helped by doing CPR and chest compressions until lifeguards arrived.
The boy was under the sand for about 3-4 minutes but survived the ordeal.
Lifeguards said he had been “tunneling” – digging one hole that connected to another hole – when it collapsed on top of him. Authorities believe the hole was about 3 feet deep.
Tunneling causes the most concern for lifeguards.
“You can have more sand collapsing onto you,” Herzog said.
Not just children
In 2011, Matt Mina spent three hours digging a deep, 6-foot hole at 54th street in Newport Beach when the sand collapsed around him and buried him.
No one knew if Mina – who was under for 10 minutes, then 20, then 30 – was alive or dead. Mina, 17 at the time, remembers going in and out of consciousness from lack of oxygen as people dug frantically around his body.
He later recounted the story to rescuers, detailing how he felt the sand start to crumble at his feet, then his back as he was laying on his stomach digging. Then it completely covered him.
Mina, who was visiting from Virginia, screamed just before the sand engulfed his body. His cousin heard the yell.
Under the sand, he was able to move his head around to make a pocket for air. Then, he started losing consciousness.
“Once you’re six feet under, you can’t really hear anything atop,” he said. “I thought I was going to die.”
Lifeguards arrived – finding only a flat spot on sand that didn’t look different from the rest of the beach — but started digging for any sign of life. Soon, 30 people were digging frantically into the sand, including beach goers, firefighters and the Urban Search and Rescue group that specializes in burial retrievals.
They were able to pull Mina out, alive, without a scratch on him.
Nearly 25 years earlier, a 7-year-old died in the exact spot from being buried underground.
“It’s very unstable ground, and you can hurt yourself,” Mina said after the ordeal. “It’s kind of deadly.”