A death at the Shore highlights dangers of digging at the beach

Beachgoers walk past a hole in the Long Branch sand where 12-year-old Ezra Cornman was trapped in a collapse. He died a day later.
Beachgoers walk past a hole in the Long Branch sand where 12-year-old Ezra Cornman was trapped in a collapse. He died a day later. (THOMAS P. COSTELLO / Asbury Park Press)
Posted: July 21, 2012

OCEAN CITY, N.J. - Whether they're just grinding their toes a few inches into the sand or carving out deep holes that look like moon craters by day's end, beachgoers seem to have an innate need to dig.

Beach patrols along the Jersey Shore are reconsidering limits on that digging since 12-year-old Ezra Cornman, of Brooklyn, N.Y., died Wednesday in a Monmouth County hospital the day after he was trapped under the sand when a tunnel he was digging on the Long Branch beach collapsed.

"It's a 360-degree lifeguarding job," said Jack Brooks, a member of the Ocean City Beach Patrol who has been on the job every summer since 1974.

Although most people associate sand shovels with those that come with children's pails, Brooks said, it's the adult-size implements that should be red flags for lifeguards. Beach patrol members are instructed to keep an eye on the daily shovel brigade and talk with beachgoers about any usually large excavations.

"It takes a while for the Etch-A-Sketch effect to work and remove all the big holes, so in the meantime, we want to avoid the problem in the first place," he said. "People can get sprained ankles from accidentally walking into one of the holes . . . emergency vehicles can get stuck. We tell people to dig wide, not deep."

But some people insist on their mega-size implements.

"I like to have the right tool for the job. But I'm careful; I don't go crazy digging holes that could hurt somebody," Ken Simms, 34, of Turnersville, said as he arrived at the 44th Street beach Thursday afternoon carrying a beach chair, cooler, and a three-foot-long shiny green shovel bought for just the occasion.

Long Branch has no regulations regarding beach digging but now may consider some, Mayor Adam Schneider said after Tuesday's tunnel accident.

The child's mother was nearby when the collapse occurred. The boy was trapped for about 10 minutes before the beach patrol was able to free him. In such accidents, the weight and pressure of the sand collapse the victim's chest and make breathing impossible.

Rescuers performed CPR on Ezra as soon as he was pulled from the hole. He died at a hospital about 24 hours later.

Most Shore municipalities post detailed regulations at beach entrances about everything from paddle ball to picnicking. Deep digging has not been a huge problem, officials said, so they have not set depth limits or other restrictions.

A general rule, according to some Shore lifeguards trained to monitor the water while keeping an eye on beach activities, is that beachgoers should dig no holes deeper than knee height of the youngest person in their party.

But some say the rules regarding beach digging should be more explicit, according to B. Chris Brewster, president of the U.S. Lifesaving Association.

"The primary goal of a lifeguard is to prevent injury . . . their role on the beach extends beyond the water," Brewster said.

An average of about 10 deaths and dozens of injuries related to beach sand activities occur annually in the United States, Brewster said. A 2007 New England Journal of Medicine study found that in the previous 10 years, there had been 31 fatalities and 21 serious injuries in recreational sand collapses on beaches. Most of the victims were male, between ages 3 and 21, according to the report.

Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University, said the need for people, especially children, to dig at the beachfront comes from a feeling of "being challenged to something . . . to engage their environment."

"And the beach is a natural place for that something," Farley said. "Beaches are overwhelmingly positive places, but there are risks there, just like everywhere else, and people always need to be on guard."

Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at www.philly.com/downashore.

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