All involved agree, sand dune rescue 'a miracle'

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CHICAGO -- One minute, 6-year-old Nathan Woessner was scampering up a massive dune in northern Indiana with his dad and a friend. He was gone the next, without a warning or sound.

More than three hours later, rescuers pulled Nathan out from under 11 feet of sand on Friday. He showed no signs of life: He was cold to the touch, had no pulse and wasn't breathing. His limp body was put into the back of a pickup truck, which started toward a waiting ambulance.

The plan was to take him to the hospital rather than the coroner's office, even if he was dead, in order to "give the family and rescue workers hope," La Porte (Ind.) County Chief Deputy Coroner Mark Huffman said Monday.

As the truck bounced over the dune, a medic noticed something astonishing: The boy took a breath. Then, the cut on his head started bleeding. The jolt apparently shocked Nathan's body back to life, Mr. Huffman said. Nathan was rushed to the hospital and was crying in the emergency room when Mr. Huffman arrived a few minutes later. "Man, I tell you that was such a great feeling," he said. "This is not something that I, as the chief deputy coroner, get to report that often. It's an absolute miracle this child survived."

Nathan, of Sterling, Ill., remains in critical condition at the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital, but he is expected to recover and be released in 10 to 14 days, Tracy Koogler, medical director of the hospital's pediatric intensive care unit, said Monday. Of greatest concern are his lungs, as the amount of sand he breathed in could lead to asthma-like symptoms, Dr. Koogler said.

Don Reul, Nathan's grandfather, was getting ready for bed after a long day of tooling around on motorcycles in New York state with his wife and another couple when the phone rang. On the other end was the "hysterical" voice of his daughter, Faith Woessner. "She said, 'Dad, Dad, we can't find him; he's under the sand," said Mr. Reul, a minister from Galva, Ill.

But he understood little else, and by the time he hung up, he believed that his grandson had fallen on the beach at Indiana Dunes National Seashore and had been pulled into Lake Michigan. Mr. Reul said he told his wife, "Nathan has died, he's drowned."

The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, running for about 25 miles along Lake Michigan's southern shore, is a popular vacation spot that long has attracted families, hikers and birdwatchers. The dune Nathan fell feet-first into is one of the tallest, the 123-foot-tall Mount Baldy.

Nathan's 8-year-old friend rushed to where his dad and Nathan's dad were, and told them Nathan had vanished. Mr. Reul said that by the time Nathan's father found the hole, he could hear his son, but couldn't see him. The two men frantically dug sand from the spot where Nathan had fallen, but stopped after it was about 4 feet deep, Mr. Reul said, realizing that they may have driven Nathan "deeper and deeper."

Faith Woessner, meanwhile, was begging people to help them dig.

Michigan City, Ind., firefighters soon arrived, and excavating companies brought backhoes and other heavy equipment to try to catch up with the boy, who was still sinking into the sand. According to media reports, the first responders pushed a rod down into the sand in the hopes of finding the boy.

Hours passed without a sign of Nathan. Mr. Huffman, the coroner arrived, which Mr. Reul said must have been a sure sign that the rescuers feared the worst: It wouldn't be a rescue.

Then, volunteer firefighter Ryan Miller, vice president of an excavating company, spotted the outline of what looked like a rotten tree about 11 feet down -- maybe more -- and pushed the rod until it stopped at the boy. Michigan City firefighter Brad Kreighbaum reached down and "felt what he believed to be Nathan's head," Mr. Miller said.

It was just in time, as there was no air pocket surrounding Nathan. "He was fully encapsulated in sand," Mr. Miller said, noting that it took about five firefighters to pull him out.

Once the family heard the boy was bleeding, Mr. Reul said, "Hope began to bubble up ... that Nathan's not gone."

He was airlifted to the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital from an Indiana hospital Friday night. "I expected him to arrive much sicker than he did," Dr. Koogler said.

Nathan was sedated so doctors could remove as much of the sand in his lungs as possible. Dr. Koogler said Monday that doctors don't see any more sand particles, but believe some is still in there. Doctors also said early neurological tests didn't reveal any brain damage; Nathan can move his arms, legs, fingers and toes. Dr. Koogler also said Nathan's eyes appear to be fine, and he must have closed them while buried.

She said the biggest concern remains the boy's lungs, telling reporters Monday that Nathan could develop asthma-like symptoms in months to come, but that the injury to his lungs was "not nearly as severe as I expected it to be."

If Nathan continues to recover at the same rate, Dr. Koogler said, he would likely be taken off the ventilator by week's end and released from the hospital in 10 to 14 days, but may need another month in a rehab facility. In six months, she said, "I'm hoping that he's going to be acting like a normal 6- to 7-year-old, riding a bicycle, doing what a normal 6- or 7-year-old does."

Mr. Reul said that before he and his wife heard anything about his grandson, he had experienced sharp, stabbing pains in his chest. Mr. Reul was not ready to say Monday that those pains happened at about the time that his grandson fell into the sinkhole.

But he was sure of what happened after: "It is a miracle."



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