Put down the beach shovel – digging big holes can get you in trouble. What you should know

Emily Lytle
Delaware News Journal

UPDATE: This story has been updated with the results of the Bethany Beach Town Council vote Friday.

Playing at the beach can feel like the world’s biggest sandbox to a wide-eyed kid. 

Dressed in bright bathing suits and covered in a dusting of sand, kids can often be seen lugging sloshing buckets of water back to the trenches they recently dug. The grins that stretch across their faces reflect the joy that digging in the sand can bring.

But as families prepare for summer vacations at the Delaware beaches, beach patrols and resort towns want people to remember that digging deep holes – and not filling them in – can be a serious and even deadly safety concern.

Beach patrol captains who have been lifeguarding for decades say they have always had a problem with people digging holes that are too deep. Their biggest concerns include cave-ins that can bury and suffocate a person inside, as well as people falling into unfilled holes.

The Ocean City Beach Patrol practices rescue techniques to be prepared for future situations involving sand collapses.

In 2017 at Ocean City, a Texas woman died from asphyxia after a hole collapsed on her at the beach.

THE LATEST:In Ocean City sand cave-in death, lawsuit nears possible settlement

Five years earlier in Rehoboth Beach, a young man was digging two 6-foot holes and carving a trench between the two when the holes caved in and trapped him.

Former Rehoboth Beach Patrol Capt. Kent Buckson remembers that day. He's still proud of how his crew performed in a scary situation. Because the sand buried the man, he wasn’t breathing when responders reached him.

“He was already unconscious (when) we pulled him out, and they started CPR on him and brought him back,” Buckson said. “He was a very lucky young man.”

Dewey Beach Patrol Capt. Todd Fritchman said he also rescued a young person who was buried after a hole caved in on him. All that stuck out from the sand was the boy’s feet, he said.

BACKROUND:Ocean City police: 'We truly don't know' how sand caved in on O'Connor

While each town follows its own rules and guidelines for digging holes, one of Delaware’s southernmost beach towns is one of the first to pass an ordinance that sets specific depth restrictions and fines for people who don’t comply.

Bethany Beach Town Council unanimously approved the ordinance Friday.

How Bethany’s new ordinance compares 

The town’s beach ambassadors “needed some kind of an enforcement mechanism,” said Mayor Rosemary Hardiman during a March 19 council meeting, specifically for people who don't cooperate with the beach rules that say people shouldn't dig large holes.

The ordinance restricts holes to no bigger than 1 foot deep and 2 feet wide, and anyone who does not fill in a “hole, trench or depression” can be fined between $50 and $100.

Members of the Ocean City Beach Patrol work to extract Delmarvanow Reporter Reed Shelton from the sand on Friday, Aug. 4, 2017.

Buckson said it’s probably wise to have an ordinance so lifeguards have something to point to when people push back against the rules. Most beach patrols said they proactively monitor the beach at the beginning of shifts and throughout the day for any dangerous holes.

NEW RULES IN 2019:How Delaware beach rules could impact your Memorial Day weekend

In Rehoboth Beach, city spokesperson Susan Towers said the lifeguards and lifeguard ambassadors use a “common sense approach” and look for potential problems.

The former beach patrol captain said he would typically ask people to not dig holes that are deeper than their knees.

“They become very dangerous when they get to the point when you’re actually standing in the hole or if you’re trying to dig head first down into the hole,” Buckson said, explaining that the hole could easily collapse in on the person.

Former Rehoboth Beach Patrol Captain Kent Buckson stands outside of the beach patrol headquarters on the boardwalk. He recently resigned from that role and was hired as North Shores Beach Patrol captain this year.

If lifeguards see deep holes, they will ask people to fill them in immediately.

During Buckson’s tenure with Rehoboth Beach, he said the city never fined someone for not filling in a hole, but he has had an officer sit on a hole until the person fills it. Other times, the lifeguards will do it themselves.

In Dewey Beach, Fritchman had a similar experience. He said they have never fined someone because “we don’t think it’s necessary,” and if they see a hole that seems to be a safety hazard, they will fill it in.

Dewey Beach follows the guidance that holes should not be any deeper than an infant’s belly button.

At the Delaware State Park beaches, including Cape Henlopen, Delaware Seashore and Fenwick Island, there is no law or rule that prohibits people from digging holes in the sand or limits how deep people can dig, according to Shauna McVey, community relations coordinator for Delaware State Parks.

All three beaches have swimming areas that lifeguards patrol every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Why are they so dangerous?

Sand is very unstable and can easily collapse when people excavate to a certain depth, Fritchman said.

Holes are often dug into the beach where the sand was once wet because the tide had recently receded. As the sand dries, its structural integrity gets weaker. And when disturbed — by a person or other vibrations — it can collapse suddenly. 

MORE TO READ:Dangers of sand cave-ins in spotlight after Ocean City death

Even farther back at the dune line, Fritchman said he has seen kids try to make a cave, which can be equally as dangerous.

Even if you are not the one inside a hole, holes that are left unfilled can lead to people falling in and twisting their ankles or becoming more seriously injured. And once a hole collapses on someone, whether they fell or were standing inside, lifeguards often have minutes to rescue the person alive.

Buckson said it’s like working with quicksand because every time responders try to move the sand away, more sand fills in. The sand is heavy — about 100 to 112 pounds per cubic foot, according to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service — and blocks the person’s airways. 

“They’re kind of sucked in there. They’re packed in once that sand caves in,” Buckson said.

The holes can also be a hazard for people who work on the beach, even damaging equipment trucks that get caught in them.

Crowds came out on July 4th to Rehoboth Beach, as seen from atop the Atlantic Sands.

Beach patrol captains and other beach representatives made it clear: They don’t want to stop anyone’s fun on the beaches. 

But as people head out to enjoy the beaches this summer, they reminded visitors to review the rules and always check in with lifeguards about possible safety concerns.

Emily Lytle covers Sussex County from the inland towns to the beaches. Got a story she should tell? Contact her at elytle@doverpost.com or 302-332-0370. Follow her on Twitter at @emily3lytle.