STERLING – The 6-year-old Sterling boy who was buried in a sand dune for more than 3 hours still was in critical condition Monday morning but was expected to make a full neurological recovery.
Nathan Woessner was in the intensive care unit at University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital. His status was equivalent to that of someone with moderate pneumonia, although it is considered critical condition, Dr. Tracy Koogler, medical director of the pediatric care unit, said during a news conference at the hospital.
Nathan is sedated and on a ventilator, and doctors continue to remove as much sand as possible from his lungs.
The boy could suffer asthma and other lasting lung problems from breathing in sand and then being on a ventilator, Koogler said.
“I believe he had to have had an air pocket down there” to survive the ordeal, she said.
Doctors hope to have the breathing tube out by the end of the week, and hope to release him in 10 to 14 days, after which he could have a week to a month of rehabilitation, Koogler added.
Nathan has been responsive and can move his limbs, she said, and initial tests don’t show any neurological damage.
He seems to recognize voices, his grandfather, the Rev. Don Reul of First Baptist Church in Galva, said during the news conference.
Greg, 30, and Faith Woessner, 33, took their family – Nathan and his three siblings, Jacob, 12, Olivia, 7, and Marcus, 3 – to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan City, Ind., on Friday. Another family from their church – Keith and Rachel Karrow and their three children, Colin, 7, Owen, 4, and Caleigh, 1 – accompanied them.
The men and Nathan and Colin were climbing the dune known as Mount Baldy around 4:30 p.m. when Nathan stepped into the sinkhole, park spokesman Bruce Rowe said.
He “disappeared out of sight,” Reul said. “He was nowhere to be seen. The ground had swallowed him up.”
Greg Woessner could hear Nathan “hollering out” from beneath the sand. He told Nathan to remain still, Reul said.
The family and passersby dug with their hands and snow shovels from their vehicles, Rowe said.
“As they dug, he went deeper and deeper,” Reul said. “They were digging for all they were worth. They had dug a hole 4 or 5 feet deep and still could not find him.”
They stopped when Nathan kept sinking farther under the sand and they couldn’t hear him anymore, he said.
Nathan must have gone down standing straight up, rather than on his back or side, he said.
The family called 911 and the National Park Service. Crews from the park service and Michigan City police and fire departments responded within 15 minutes, Rowe said.
Responders used long poles to test the stability of the sand around the area, then used excavating equipment to uncover the boy, he said.
Firefighters reached Nathan just after 8 p.m. and pulled him out.
The family feared the boy was dead when he was pulled out, until a cut on his face began bleeding, Reul said.
Then “hope began to bubble up in our family that Nathan’s not gone,” he said.
Nathan was taken on a stretcher via all-terrain vehicle to an ambulance, which took him to St. Anthony’s Memorial Hospital in Michigan City. He later was taken to the Chicago hospital.
Nathan was buried under 11 feet of sand for more than 3 hours. The family considers his survival nothing short of a miracle.
Authorities collected photos, measurements and other evidence from the sinkhole, Rowe said. The sinkhole was filled in for public safety, and Mount Baldy has been closed to the public while the park service investigates the reason for the collapse, he said.
His family hopes Nathan will be back to his old self – a typical 6-year-old boy who loves to be outside – within a few months, Reul said.