Holes in the sand: fun or hazardous?

Toting popular plastic shovels, cousins Kyle Trout and Tim Brooks, both 8 years old, stood knee deep in a hole they had dug in Fenwick Island’s beach on Saturday while their parents lounged in chairs nearby. Sitting in the shallow hole with sloped sides, Brooks said digging a hole is a fun way to pass the time.

“We’re kind of bored,” Brooks said. “So we just dig a hole.”

Digging holes in the beach to tunnel through, stand in or try to reach water is one of the most popular pastimes for children who visit Delaware’s beaches annually. But a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine last month indicates that digging holes in the sand can be hazardous.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation found 52 instances in the last decade in which people became submerged when dry-sand holes collapsed around them. In those cases, 31 people, ranging in age from 3 to 21, died after becoming trapped in the holes that were dug for fun.

The researchers reported that the collapses were inadvertently caused while some were digging the hole or when others jumped or fell into a previously dug hole. The 21 others documented as victims to the phenomenon were rescued. According to the research, 87 percent of the victims were male and 41 out of the 52 instances happened on the shoreline on a public beach. The holes ranged in depth from 2 feet to 15 feet.

Tim Ferry, Fenwick Island’s beach patrol captain, said he has long been aware of the dangers surrounding hole-digging. Fenwick ordinances don’t prohibit the activity, but lifeguards regulate the depth of holes to minimize the risk, Ferry said. He said he and lifeguards there don’t allow children to dig holes farther than knee or waist deep and ask diggers to fill in the hole before they leave the beach.

“Kids see (the beach) as a play place. There is a fascination with digging a hole deep enough that you hit water,” Ferry said. “We really strongly suggest against that. There are a variety of injuries that can, and do, occur from these holes.”

Ferry said many Fenwick beachgoers have suffered sprained ankles and other minor injuries but nothing as serious as documented in the published research. Officials in Bethany Beach, who also recognized the threat, said the same. Bethany ordinances do not prohibit digging but lifeguards there also regulate the size and depth of holes, and a message on the back of lifeguard stands tells beachgoers not to dig “large” holes.

“We do discourage it,” Bethany Beach Patrol Capt. Joe Donnelly said, adding that he remembers no major emergencies as a result of holes in Bethany’s beach. Bethany officials have had to help dig people out whose friends have buried them in the sand with only their heads showing, another popular pastime, he said. “We try to regulate (hole-digging) as best we can,” Donnelly said. “It does seem to be a fun activity for the kids.”

Ferry added, though, that many parents shrug off the threat.

Kellie Trout, Kyle’s mother, sat on the beach about 10 yards away with their backs to her as her son and nephew dug the hole on Saturday. Trout stressed parental supervision and added that she doesn’t let her son dig holes too deep. Standing proudly submerged in the hole on Saturday, Kyle Trout and Tim Brooks were only about knee deep.

“I don’t see a problem with it,” said Trout, a New Jersey native. “They have to be careful.”

In the June 21 report, the researches conceded that collapses are “uncommon” but called education on the risk “important,” especially in the summer season. “The risk of this event is enormously deceptive, because of its association with relaxed recreational settings not generally regarded as hazardous,” the researchers wrote.

Standing with their 5-, 3- and 2-year-old sons while they dug holes in wet sand near the shoreline on Fenwick’s beach last weekend, upstate residents Jason Blair and Steve Lennon recognized the risk that comes with hole-digging and said they do not take it lightly. Lennon and Blair said they regulate the size and depth of the holes and make sure to fill them in before leaving the beach.

“I make sure they’re not too deep,” Lennon said. “I’m pretty neurotic.”