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, on a trip to New York state, was getting ready for bed 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 his grandson had fallen on the beach at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and had been pulled into Lake Michigan.
“I said Nathan has died, he’s drowned,” Reul told his wife.
The dune Nathan fell feet-first into is one of the tallest, the 123-foot-tall Mount Baldy.
Nathan’s father and another man 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 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. Hours passed without a sign of Nathan. Huffman, the coroner, arrived.
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 a 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.
“He was fully encapsulated in sand,” Miller said, noting it took about five firefighters to pull him out. He was airlifted to the University of Chicago Friday night.