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Sand Dune Swallows Child: Freakish Phenomenon Nearly Claims Boy’s Life

historical landmarks | July 2, 2018

A day at the beach suddenly turned into a life or death situation for a six-year-old Illinois boy in the summer of 2013. The threat to his life had nothing to do with the deep water or dangerous rip tides. In fact, it was the sand that nearly drowned the boy. Little Nathan Woessner was the victim of a freak geological event that caused a sand dune to, quite literally, swallow him alive. 

Indiana Dunes State Park. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)

Mt. Baldy Has Attracted Visitors for More Than 100 Years

The Woessner family, from Sterling, Illinois, decided to take advantage of the beautiful mid-July day with a trip to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. This area, located at the southern tip of Lake Michigan, is known for its scenic hiking trails, sparkling beaches, and picturesque sand dunes. The featured attraction is Mt. Baldy, a 126-foot tall sand dune that is nearly devoid of vegetation. Generations of visitors to the National Lakeshore have enjoyed climbing to the top of the dune and slip-sliding back down on the loose sand. This is what Nathan Woessner and his family were doing on that fateful July day. 

The Sand Opened Up and Swallowed the Boy!

Nathan, a curious six-year-old, noticed an odd depression in the sand midway up Mt. Baldy. When he went to get a closer look, the ground suddenly went out from under him and the sand dune quickly swallowed him up. Fortunately, his parents and several other visitors witnessed Nathan’s disappearance into the sand. Efforts to dig him out by hand were futile. The more they dug, the more sand poured into the hole, burying the boy even deeper. 

(ABC News)

Rescue Trucks Couldn’t Climb the Sand Dune

Emergency personnel quickly arrived on the scene but the situation was more challenging than any beach rescue they had trained for. Fire trucks couldn’t climb up the steep, sandy slope of Mt. Baldy. And then there was the hole itself. Nathan had fallen into an impossibly deep hole. Heavy duty excavating equipment was brought in as precious minutes ticked away. Miraculously, after three hours buried in the sand, Nathan was located eleven feet down and rescued. He had an air pocket that kept him from suffocating, but he had sand in his lungs. After a lengthy hospital stay, Nathan has made a full recovery. The mystery remained, however. How could a sand dune open up and swallow a person? It seemed impossible to think that empty voids could exist beneath the sand. Sand, like water, is a fluid material that would quickly fill up a hole or void within the dune. Something else must have occurred. Scientists set out to find exactly what that could be. 

(Smithsonian Magazine)

Great Lakes Sand Dunes Are Unique

Baffled researchers soon encountered two other depressions much like the one Nathan went to explore. While one group of researchers studied these depressions, others sought answers by looking at the unique features of Great Lakes sand dunes. What both groups found could be the clues they need to solve the mystery. The first group used ground-penetrating radar to survey the sand dune. They observed that the depressions in the sand occurred over odd anomalies beneath the sand. Relatively narrow – only about one foot in diameter – the anomalies seem structurally sound enough to keep the sand at bay … that is until a small leak formed. Only then could small amounts of sand slowly trickle into the void. Even though the researchers were able to find other anomalies, they didn’t know what caused them to form in the first place.

That’s when the work of the second group of researchers came in. Geologists have long known that there are many more sand dunes at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore than meets the eye. Vegetation-free sand dunes, like Mt. Baldy, are easy to identify, but there are other sand dunes throughout the park that are hidden because an oak forest grows on top of them. Despite the large trees, they remain living, shifting sand dunes. The geologists discovered an older sand dune beneath the sand of Mt. Baldy. This older dune was once covered with oak trees, just like some of the other dunes in the park. An aerial photograph of Mt. Baldy from 1935 helped the researchers pinpoint spots where oak trees once grew. One of these spots was where Nathan fell through the sand. 

An Ancient Oak Forest Once Covered the Dune

Armed with this information, the scientists formed a theory. Old oak trees were buried within the sand dune, slowly decaying from the inside out. The unusually wet spring of 2013, just months before Nathan’s accident, most likely accelerated the decay of the trees. What remains after the wood rots away, are narrow, vertical shafts of nothingness. The sand had become so firmly packed around the tree trunks that it created a semi-stable wall that held the structure together. The shifting sand, rainwater, and the heavy foot traffic from park visitors began to weaken the structures, causing tiny amounts of sand to fall into the void, creating a depression in the sand that is similar to the one you see in an hourglass. When Nathan stepped near the depression, he was sucked into the void and the dune completely swallowed him. 

(National Parks Conservation Association)

Visitors Can Still Enjoy the Beach but Mt. Baldy is Closed

To prevent further accidents like the one that happened to Nathan, the parks service temporarily closed Mt. Baldy to visitors while it conducted extensive geological testing and mapping of the voids. Once located, the voids could be pierced, allowing the sand to fill the hole and stabilizing the ground. The Mt. Baldy sand dune remains closed to the public for the safety of the park visitors and to allow further scientific research to be done on this unique phenomenon. Visitors to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore can still enjoy the beach and the hiking trails. But the sand dune that swallowed little Nathan Woessner will not be able to claim another victim. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.