All involved agree, sand dune rescue ‘a miracle’

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, Huffman said. Nathan was rushed to the hospital and was crying in the emergency room when Huffman arrived a few minutes later.

“Man, I tell you that was such a great feeling,” Huffman 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, Dr. Tracy Koogler said Monday. Of greatest concern is his lungs, as the amount of sand he breathed in could lead to asthma-like symptoms, she 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 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.

“I said Nathan has died, he’s drowned,” Reul told his wife.

The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, running for about 25 miles along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, is a popular vacation spot that has long 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. Reul said that by the time Nathan’s father found the hole, he could hear his son, but not see him.

The two men frantically dug sand from the spot where Nathan had fallen, but stopped after it was about four feet deep, Reul said, realizing 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. Huffman, the coroner arrived, which 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, the 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,” Miller said.

It was just in time, as there was no air pocket surrounding Nathan.

“He was fully encapsulated in sand,” Miller said, noting it took about five firefighters to pull him out.

Once the family heard the boy was bleeding, 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,” said Koogler, medical director of the pediatric intensive care unit.

Nathan was sedated so doctors could remove as much of the sand in his lungs as possible. She said Monday 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. Koogler also said Nathan’s eyes appear to be fine, adding he must have had closed them while buried in the sand.

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

Koogler said if Nathan continues to recover at the same rate, he would likely be taken off the ventilator by the end of the week and released from the hospital in 10-14 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.”

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

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

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