‘Digging your own grave’: Maryland lifeguards warn of the hidden danger of beach sand

Lifeguards in Ocean City, Maryland, will begin an intensive eight-day training academy this week to prepare for big crowds on Memorial Day weekend. Before swimmers hit the shore, the beach patrol is reminding them of a rule that’s posted on all of the lifeguard stands: don’t dig deep holes.

“You could be digging and suddenly without warning, it can all just give way and pile in,” said Ocean City Beach Patrol Captain Butch Arbin. “Then the issue is, as you move around, the sand will fill in” and you can’t breathe as deeply on your next breath.

Arbin said sinking sand holes are more common than many beach visitors realize.

“Most people just never think of it,” he said. “People always ask about sharks, but more people die every year by sand hole collapse than sharks.”

It happened in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Florida, in February. Sloan Mattingly, 7, and her older brother, Maddox, were buried underneath the sand as they played feet away from their parents.

Several beachgoers rushed to dig the children out, but they couldn’t get to Sloan in time.

“We’ve had people die in Ocean City,” Arbin said. “I have photos of people (who) were down in a hole and there was three feet above them, they’re that deep.”

The beach patrol has one rule to protect visitors and continue the fun: “The hole can be no deeper than knee deep to the smallest person in the party,” he said.

Arbin said his team has developed a method to quickly rescue people trapped in sand, and they’ve shared it with other beach patrol agencies around the country.

Instead of digging in a downward pattern to reach a trapped person, Arbin said lifeguards push the sand outward and away from the hole, making sure it doesn’t seep back in.

He said beach sand seems harmless to visitors, but it can become a sudden danger.

“When you pick up a handful of sand, it doesn’t seem as heavy as dirt,” he said. “And when people get to the beach they think, ‘Ah, I’m on vacation.’ But I tell people, ‘You may be digging your own grave if you’re digging that deep.’”

Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.

© 2024 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Gigi Barnett

Gigi Barnett is an anchor at WTOP. She has worked in the media for more than 20 years. Before joining WTOP, she was an anchor at WJZ-TV in Baltimore, KXAN-TV in Austin, Texas, and a staff reporter at The Miami Herald. She’s a Navy wife and mom of three.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up