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Holes on Jersey beaches: Art form, storage area, or potential death trap?

The death last week in Ocean City, Maryland of the Texas woman who was asphyxiated when she fell into a hole the beach and the sand collapsed around her, is highlighting the need for increased awareness about something not generally associated with a life-threatening event on the beach.

A man, who prefers to be identified only as Bob, digs a large hole to make a baby pool for his two grandchildren at the beach in Ocean City. Bob said he digs the hole every day when his grandchildren are visiting, and then he fills it in at the end of the day before they leave the beach.
A man, who prefers to be identified only as Bob, digs a large hole to make a baby pool for his two grandchildren at the beach in Ocean City. Bob said he digs the hole every day when his grandchildren are visiting, and then he fills it in at the end of the day before they leave the beach.Read moreJessica Griffin

OCEAN CITY, N.J. — The first thing the Erickson family of West Chester does when they arrive at the beach for vacation every summer is claim their spot on the sand. They dig a big hole — about four feet wide, a couple of feet deep.

Granddad Eric Erickson, who along with nearly a dozen family members scoped out the site and dug a hole last week, calls the pursuit "an art form": not too close to the water's edge, but not too far up on the beach because the sand could be too dry.

"For us, the hole serves as a storage space for the kids' toys and a starting point for any sand castles anybody wants to build," noted grandmom Pat Erickson as the family spent a recent day on the 44th Street beach. "So long as you fill it in at the end of the day, which is what we've always told our kids to do, they're safe. We don't want to see anyone getting hurt."

That safety concern was on the minds of some beachgoers and lifeguards in New Jersey after a 30-year-old Texas woman died when she fell into a hole during a 2 a.m. walk on the beach in Ocean City, Md., on July 31. She was asphyxiated when the sand collapsed around her.

No Jersey Shore officials could recall an incident there in which a beachgoer died because they fell into a hole left by someone else.

New Jersey beach patrols have been trained to monitor the digging that beachgoers may be doing to prevent such tragedies. Many towns say they don't have laws regulating the depth of holes, but recommend that visitors limit their digging.

"By the end of the day, the beach looks like the surface of the moon with all the holes that people dig. Fortunately, we've never had an incident like the one in Maryland here, but we pay close attention when things like this happen. And we talk about it and train for dealing with it," said Ocean City Beach Patrol Lt. Matt Garbutt, 41, who has been a member of the patrol for 27 years.

During the summer season, up and down New Jersey's 127-mile coast, public works crews in every beach town make a daily ritual of "grooming" the beaches. At dawn, front end loaders and other heavy equipment rake the beaches for trash and debris and smooth out the surface, which is often pocked by holes.

"Our eyes are fixed on the water, but every now and then we scan the beach around us to make sure the digging isn't getting out of hand," said Andrew Wise, 35, who has been a lifeguard for the Ocean City Beach Patrol for about 16 years. "We've tried to learn from the incidents in other beach towns so we can prevent problems like that from happening here."

The most recent such death at the Jersey Shore happened in July 2012, when a 12-year-old boy died in Long Branch, Monmouth County, when a three-foot-deep sand tunnel he was building with his brother collapsed on him. In 2015, a 12-year-old was seriously injured in Surf City, Long Beach Island, when a hole he was digging collapsed around him.

Ocean City doesn't have an ordinance that prevents people from digging on the beach, but it dispatches beach patrol members — and sometimes police — to remind individuals not to dig any deeper than about two feet.

Area hospitals say that while they haven't necessarily seen an increase in the number of injuries related to people falling into holes on the beach in recent years, they do notice a spike in beach-related maladies like sprained ankles every year during the summer months.

But while there appear to be no national statistics on how many people are killed or injured annually from falling into such holes, a study conducted by two Boston doctors — a father and son — between 1997 and 2007 suggest that there is an "under-recognized safety risk associated with leisure activities in open-sand environments."

In a 2007 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Bradley Maron, a cardiovascular specialist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, said there were 52 documented fatal and nonfatal cases during that 10-year period in which people were submerged after the collapse of a sand hole excavated for recreational purposes. The collapses were triggered by "digging, tunneling, jumping, or falling into the hole."

In the study by Maron and his father, Barry, the median age of victims was 12, the most common location was near the shoreline, and the holes were generally two to 15 feet deep. The collapses resulted in 31 deaths. The 21 sand-hole victims who lived survived because of timely rescue operations, many of them requiring CPR. Of the deaths and injuries, 87 percent of the victims were male.

The Marons wrote that the "risk of this event is enormously deceptive because of its association with relaxed recreational settings not generally regarded as hazardous."

Taking a proactive stance is something Jersey Shore towns have been discussing for years, said Scott J. Wahl, a business administrator in Avalon.

Wahl said that instead of enacting ordinances or posting rules about digging, officials in Avalon decided it was best for beach patrol members there to "have discussions with individuals" about safety issues should the digging get out of hand. Then the matter of smoothing the sand is left to public works crews.

"Public works sets the reset button every day on the beaches all summer long," Wahl said. "They smooth out the beach, collect the trash left behind, and rake the beach. They arrive just before sunup, many hours before the beaches open, to ensure a clean, safe environment."

But on a day off at the beach, why do all the work of digging a big hole?

"It's a way for man to master his environment," said Frank Farley, a Temple University psychologist and professor. "While digging a big hole looks like work for some people, for others who, in their brains, have relabeled it as `fun,' it's what they want to do when they get to the beach."

Farley said he agrees with the Marons that individuals don't always associate such activities as digging holes and building sand castles at the beach as dangerous — and may be at risk because they have their guard down.

"In this new world of the 21st century, the ante has been raised on risk," Farley said. "One of the main survival tactics of these days may be to be careful regarding issues and situations that we have never thought of as being risky … like taking a walk on the beach after midnight, or building an elaborate sand castle."