The hole James Boyden was digging in the Rhode Island beach wasn’t that deep — just chest-high to a 17-year-old boy who stands around 5 feet tall. But when he bent down to do some more excavating, the loose sand collapsed, burying the boy in suffocating darkness.
Fortunately for James, he was at the beach with his father and mother, Ken and Renee Boyden, and his 15-year-old brother, Andrew. Thanks to their efforts and the expert work of a rescue crew from the local fire department, he was able to tell his story Friday to TODAY’s Matt Lauer in New York.
Rescue workers say he’s lucky to be alive. But James, wearing a camo baseball cap backward and baggy shorts with a dark T-shirt, acted as if it hadn’t been that big a deal. He’s a natural-born hole digger, it seems; he’d been digging in the sand since he was a little kid without ever being in any danger.
He told Lauer that during Tuesday’s family day trip from their Connecticut home to East Beach in Charlestown, R.I., he had been working on his hole in the sand for about an hour when it collapsed on him. His mother was on the beach nearby, and his dad and brother were standing in the surf some 10 yards away.
At first, James said, it wasn’t that bad. Because he was bent over, he had some room under his chest and face to breathe and move, and he knew someone would have seen the hole collapse and would dig him out.
“I could move a little bit,” James told Lauer. “It’s sand, it’s not like concrete. I could move a little bit, but I couldn’t stand up or anything.”
But the lack of oxygen quickly got to him.
“In the beginning it hurt a little bit because of all the sand. It got in my mouth, it got in my lungs, and it wasn’t good. But after a while, all the carbon dioxide, it was like carbon dioxide poisoning,” James said.
‘Thank you, Daddy’
The boy said he blacked out for maybe a minute. His father said it may have been as long as 3 or 4 minutes. At moments like that, it’s hard to know how long things take to happen.
Renee Boyden said she just heard the “woomp” sound of sand caving in and knew immediately what had happened. She called for her husband, who rushed to the scene while their other son, Andrew, recruited beachgoers to come and help.
“I just saw flat sand where I knew he was digging,” the father told Lauer. “I knew where his head was, so I was able to get down in there and just dig as quickly as I could, and it just seemed my hands went right to his head.”
James recovered consciousness when his father touched his head and cleared his face.
“When I first cleared his face, he opened his eyes and he looked at me and he said, ‘Thank you, Daddy.’ At that time, I just felt relief and I felt there was hope that it was going to be OK.”
But the ordeal wasn’t anywhere near over. Renee had started trying to excavate James’ body, but she also had to keep other volunteers from standing or sitting on the edge of the hole, which just made more sand collapse into it.
“I was yelling at people, which was very unusual for me to do. I don’t yell,” she told Lauer. But when one of her brood is in danger, a mother does unusual things.
‘Time went so slow’
Ken concentrated on keeping the sand out of James’ face, which is what experts say anyone should do when someone gets trapped in the sand. If that’s not possible, a rescuer should cup a hand over the victim’s nose and mouth to create a breathing space.
The Charlestown Fire Department was called, but it seemed to the family like it took forever for them to arrive.
“Time just went so slow. It seemed like it was 20 or 30 minutes we were keeping him clear until they got there,” Ken said. “And then they cleared everybody away from the hole and got their equipment in and did a really professional job.”
The firemen came with shoring timbers and jacks and a hoist and other specialized equipment. After clearing everyone away, they went to work.
“They really knew what they were doing,” Ken said with admiration. “They have a technique, they had the equipment. They really performed wonderfully. It took a while, because they really had to be tender with what they were doing so it didn’t collapse again.”
After about an hour, they had James out. Although he said he was fine, he was airlifted to a local hospital just to be sure.
More dangerous than sharks
At first, the Boydens said they didn’t want to talk about their near-brush with tragedy, partly because there had already been suggestions in local press reports that they were “knuckleheads” who let their son dig a hole that grew, according to some inaccurate accounts, to more than 8 feet deep. In truth, the hole wasn’t any deeper than James’ chest. Had it caved in when he was standing up, he could have wriggled out in a few seconds.
Dr. Bradley Maron of Brigham and Women’s Hospital has made something of a hobby of tracking sand collapses. He told NBC News it’s an interest that goes back to seeing someone trapped in the sand when he was a young lifeguard in Massachusetts. “Hole collapses cause more injuries and death than shark attacks,” he said.
Ken Boyden said that the family agreed to appear on TODAY to spread the word that even innocent-looking sand holes can be dangerous.
“It wasn’t as big of a hole as people were saying,” Ken Boyden told Lauer. “Little boys dig little holes. When you get to be young man, it’s a young man’s size hole. He happened to be crouching down or sitting when it caved in. Because he was down in the hole when it collapsed, that created that whole situation. Even a smaller hole can be very dangerous for children on the beach.”
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints