Q. Can you explain how it's possible that 12-year-old Ezra Cornman died in New Jersey last month after a tunnel he was digging in the sand with his brother collapsed on him? How can such tragedies be prevented?
A. "The sand is so unstable," says Tom Curtin, a Jones Beach lifeguard captain. "The kids in their enthusiasm dig down. . . . It's just a recipe for disaster."
Usually kids start out digging a hole, he says. "They'll build a hole they have to climb out of, that's deeper than them," Curtin says. Then they may make it into a trench. Sometimes they'll dig two holes and try to carve out a tunnel between them. The hole and tunnel that collapsed on the boy in New Jersey was reported to be 6 feet long and 2 to 3 feet deep.
Death is caused by some combination of the sand on the child's chest making it too heavy for the child to breathe or get up, and the sand blocking the child's airway, Curtin says. The sand is especially heavy near the water's edge, where it's damp.
To prevent tragedies, don't let your kids build tunnels at all or dig holes deeper than their waists, Curtin says.
Incidentally, always have children fill in a hole when leaving to protect others. "We've had some vehicles go into them during the night when they're doing patrols," says George Gorman, deputy regional director of the New York State Parks & Recreation Department. "They don't see them."