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Still 'a little ways to go'

Sterling boy now talking, breathing on his own

CHICAGO – Nathan Woessner is sitting up, watching cartoons and – for the first time since being buried in a sand dune – talking.

The University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital said the 6-year-old Sterling boy has been taken off a ventilator and is breathing on his own.

Last Friday, Nathan fell into a hole as he followed his dad, Greg, to the top of Mount Baldy at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. He was buried 11 feet below the surface nearly 4 hours before rescuers could get to him.

A post on the First Baptist Church of Galva website, where Nathan’s grandfather, the Rev. Don Reul, is the senior pastor, said Nathan was feeling well enough to watch television, sit up and speak.

Sand lodged in Nathan’s lungs created pneumonia-like symptoms and was flushed out daily. He was kept sedated for the past week but is now recovering from that sedation.

“Nathan Woessner has been upgraded from critical and is now in serious condition,” Dr. Rachel Wolfson, who took over Nathan’s care this week, said in a statement. “He has been extubated, is recovering from sedation and continues to respond to commands.”

Dr. Tracy Koogler, who attended to Nathan over the weekend at Comer Children’s Hospital, said at a news conference earlier this week that he is expected to make a full or nearly full recovery.

But he still has months of healing ahead of him, she said.

“Please continue to pray for Nathan and his family,” the church website reads. “Nathan has a little ways to go to make a complete recovery.”

Greg and Faith Woessner, 30 and 33, took Nathan and his three siblings, Jacob, 12, Olivia, 7, and Marcus, 3, to the park that Friday with friends from their Rock Falls church, the Rock River Christian Center, Keith and Rachel Karrow and their three children, Colin, 7, Owen, 4, and Caleigh, 1.

Reul said he believes Nathan’s rescue and survival was a miracle.

“We’re very aware that God has been good to us,” Reul said at the news conference. “And we say ‘thank you.’’’

In the meantime, the National Park Service continues to investigate what caused the sinkhole.

Some geologists theorize that a long-buried tree trunk decomposed and created the void – and possibly an air pocket that kept Nathan alive – in the dune. They hope to use ground-sensing equipment to peer beneath the surface, Ranger Bruce Rowe said.

"At this point, we still don't know what caused the hole," Rowe said, although the tree theory seems plausible because the dune moves about 4 to 10 feet a year and "it's covered a lot of trees."

The Mount Baldy area, which includes about a half-mile of shoreline, will remain closed for weeks, possibly until after Labor Day, until the proper equipment and experts can be brought in, he said.

The first step will be for a conductivity study to be done to find possible anomalies in the 43-acre sand dune. If those are found, ground-penetrating radar will be brought in to get a better idea of what could have caused the sand to collapse, he said.

Rescuers reached Nathan shortly after one of them inserted a probe into the sand in an area that looked like the outline of a tree trunk. A tree was not found, although "quite a bit of bark" was, leading to speculation that the sand many feet below the surface might have been wet enough to hold the shape of a long-decayed trunk.

Another potential explanation is that sand and debris from a higher elevation washed out underground and discharged at a lower elevation – a phenomenon known as "piping" – creating a subterranean cavity, said Sam Panno, senior geochemist at the Illinois Geological Survey.

Panno said he has heard of people occasionally falling into such cavities, although many of the formations are stable or collapse on themselves.

"We haven't ruled out anything and we haven't drawn any conclusions at this point,"  Rowe said.

Todd Thompson, assistant director for research at the Indiana Geological Survey, said he's concerned the heavy equipment and the digging done to rescue Nathan may have altered the structure of the sediment in the dune.

"You may not be able to see as well as you would like," Thompson said. "I think (the radar) would have a hard time finding an air pocket. But I think it would be able to recognize any kind of anomalous feature down in there."

Rowe said National Park Service personnel have been in contact with officials at other national and state parks with coastal dunes to see if anyone has heard of anything similar.

"So far, in terms of finding other researchers who know about this, we haven't found anyone yet," he said. "We don't even know what the proper technical term would be."

Workers at the park won't be allowed on Mount Baldy until proper safety protocols are written. The rest of the park remains open because the dunes the public are allowed to walk on have steps or boardwalks on them, Rowe said.

"Because of that, we thought it was safe to keep the rest of the park open."

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