CHICAGO | The coroner was standing by when they pulled the cold and lifeless 6-year-old boy from the sinkhole that suddenly swallowed him at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
Family members, beachgoers within shouting distance and emergency responders had been frantically digging in the sand at Mount Baldy at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore near Michigan City for more than 3 1/2 hours Friday, but Nathan Woessner had sunk so deep they could no longer hear his cries for help. The backhoes scooping out sand so it didn't fill the hole back in had extended their arms as deep as they could reach.
Nathan appeared dead when they finally freed him from the sinkhole, grandfather Don Reul said.
But the Sterling, Ill., boy started to bleed from a cut to his face, and they knew he had a heartbeat.
Reul said it was a miracle that his grandson survived after being buried alive for so long under 11 feet of sand, and that he's been healing so fast the family hopes he will be able to start school in the fall.
Nathan is being treated at the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital, where he has been getting better every day since the earth gobbled him up while he was climbing Mount Baldy with his father, said Dr. Tracy Koogler, medical director of the pediatric intensive care unit at the University of Chicago Medicine. He was breathing on his own when he first arrived at the hospital, and he likely had been saved by an air pocket in the dune, she said.
Family members have been maintaining a vigil at his hospital bed, where the little boy who likes to run around outside and play shoeless in the dirt has been sedated and hooked to a ventilator. Doctors have have been administering daily saltwater flushes to clear his lungs of the sand that Koogler said might still be present six months from now.
They want to do more testing of his lungs and brain. All the case studies doctors pored over during the weekend focus on whether the patient who was buried alive lived or died, not whether any long-term injuries were suffered.
Nathan remained in critical condition as of Monday afternoon, but doctors expect to remove the breathing tube by the end of the week and release him from the hospital in 10 to 14 days.
An initial neurological exam showed positive results, and ophthalmologists couldn't find any apparent damage to his eyes, which Koogler said he must have closed after he sunk into the sand. He received more than 20 staples to the back of his head, which was cut open at some point when they were digging him out.
Abrasions mark his cheeks, forehead and arms.
But Nathan is in remarkably good condition and is close to full recovery, Koogler said.
The hope is with rehab Nathan will fully recover and be able to ride his bicycle and do the normal things 6-year-old boys do, Koogler said. But she is concerned the sand in his lungs could cause long-term problems.
He is at risk for infection and also an autoimmune reaction, since his body is fighting against the foreign objects that infiltrated his lungs. His lungs are creating a thick mucus to combat the intruding grains of sand, and that potentially could lead to asthmalike symptoms or an even more severe pulmonary condition in the future, Koogler said.
In the long term, he could suffer from wheezing or difficulty breathing, but he also could end up completely normal, Koogler said.
Nathan likely will need between a week and a month in rehab before he can return home to his parents, Greg and Faith Woessner, of Sterling, and he also may require psychological therapy.
"At some point he will remember this," Koogler said. "But it's miraculous what children his age can go through and not have the trauma we expect them to have."
Nathan, one of four children, had been on vacation with his family at the dunes, Reul said. They spent the day at the beach and then decided to climb Mount Baldy to see the top.
He, his father, a family friend and another young boy trekked up Mount Baldy late in the afternoon. Nathan, who was trailing behind the longer-legged adults, stepped into a sinkhole they passed by and suddenly disappeared. The other boy, Colin, saw that he vanished and called out for help.
"(Nathan) stepped on a spot that just swallowed him up," Reul said. "He was standing straight up in an upright position when they found him, but he kept going straight down."
At first, they could hear him crying out from under the sand. They dug frantically with their hands, and his father yelled for him to be still and not to move, Reul said. He tried to comfort his son and yelled that they would get him out.
They dug and dug, and pleaded and prayed. They yelled for help, and other beachgoers came and helped them dig.
During the search, Faith Woessner called Reul, her father, while he was vacationing in upstate New York. She was so hysterical he didn't initially understand what happened, and thought that his grandson had drowned in Lake Michigan.
He told his wife their grandchild had died, and they cried together in a motel room.
But then they found out Nathan had been taken to the hospital, and Reul took his wife to the nearest airport in Albany and then rode his motorcycle 15 hours straight to go see his grandson in the hospital.
Nathan's family has remained by his bedside since he was admitted into the hospital in Chicago. He seems to recognize their voices and has shook his head to respond to questions, such as if he was cold.
"God spared him for a reason," said Reul, who is a pastor. "We're confident we're going to get back Nathan whole."