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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Beware the deadly sand trap
No, it's not about golf. Researchers say beachgoers must take care playing in sand holes.
By BILL VARIAN
Published June 23, 2007
From left to right, visiting New Orleans residents Devin Simpson, 11 and Madylin Nixon-Taplet share a laugh as they bury friend Brittany Williams along with Fatima Garba and Malik Monette at Pass-A-Grille Beach on Thursday afternoon.
[Willie J. Allen Jr. | Times]
[Willie J. Allen Jr. | Times]
During their yearly one week vacation from New Orleans Devin Simpson poses while the finishing touches are applied to his head by Brittany Williams after he was buried by family and friends.
Just when you thought it was safe to get back out of the water comes news that the sand on the shore can be almost as deadly as sharks in the surf.
The threat is astronomically small. And a little hard to believe.
It stems from one of the most innocent of beachgoing rituals: digging a hole.
If the hole is deep enough, its walls can collapse, trapping the victim inside. It often leaves no trace of what just happened, turning a blissful day at the beach into a tragedy.
Don't believe it? Pick up the latest edition of the New England Journal of Medicine. Two doctors say they have confirmed 52 cases worldwide of what they call recreational sand hole collapse, resulting in 31 deaths. Seven were in Florida. Most took place at the beach and involved children.
For one particular stretch, from 1990 to 2006, more people died in the United States in collapsing sand holes (16) than in shark attacks (12).
"I'm not trying to trigger any fear in anyone," said the lead author, Dr. Bradley A. Maron, an internal medicine resident at Brigham and Women's Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School. "The important thing here is that these are preventable. I'm just trying to create awareness."
Maron took an interest in the subject after witnessing a sand hole swallow an 8-year-old girl in 1998 while vacationing with his family on Martha's Vineyard, Mass. The girl survived, but the incident left an impression on Maron, a former lifeguard.
"That's the last thing you worry about as a lifeguard," Maron said. "You're trained to rescue people from the water."
His father, Barry J. Maron, a cardiologist at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation and co-author of the study, encouraged him to find out how often it happens. Years later, it has become the younger Maron's mission to create a registry of sorts, similar for those that exist for shark attacks and drownings.
He figures his list, including incidents from four countries, is likely incomplete. Of cases Maron could confirm, his report says all were children or young adults up to 21 years old. They were found in holes ranging from 2 to 12 feet deep.
The danger is not exactly unknown, but also not necessarily associated with a leisurely day at the beach.
"That's a new one to me," said Jim Wilson, park supervisor at Fort De Soto Park, who said anyone digging there would likely hit water before reaching dangerous depths.
Mark Colley, a risk management specialist with the Pinellas County Utilities Department, said sandy soil is particularly perilous. When a trench collapses, the sand works much like a constricting snake.
"It's a weird beast," Colley said. "Every time you exhale, it gets a little bit tighter."
At the beaches of Fort De Soto and Passe-A-Grille this week, a seasonal rite continued as countless boys and girls lugged plastic buckets and shovels up and down the beach.
James Carter, 22, an Army specialist vacationing from Winter Garden with his family at St. Pete Beach, emerged coated in sand from a hole he had dug, as son Skyler James, 4, and daughter Mackenzie Azreal, 2, watched. He greeted questions about the sand-hole report with a look that said, "Duh!"
He said he would never dig a hole so deep he could stand in it, the risk being obvious.
"Laying on the beach and letting someone cover me with a few inches of sand, I'll do that all day long," Carter said.
Nearby, Sharon Taylor of Keystone Heights watched as her daughter Gracie worked diligently on a small hole near the surf line. She said she has greater concerns for her children's safety.
How does this one rank?
"Very low," Taylor said.
George H. Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, spends a good part of his time debunking fears of shark attacks, often when the latest strike hits the front page. Yet he wouldn't take the bait when asked if this was one more vindication.
"There's nothing to laugh about," he said. "Certainly, being buried in sand is very serious."
Still, he maintains a link on the museum's Web site comparing the risk of shark bites to other threats. For instance, dog bites on humans in New York City outnumber shark bites on humans worldwide.
The sand-hole statistics hit his Web site Friday.
Maron said he will keep updating his work as well. Stories about his research invariably bring in tips of other incidents to investigate.
"I'm not trying to curb behavior or take anything away from anyone," he said. "As physicians, we're sort of classically trained to prevent problems before they happen."
Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.