MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. – Nathan Woessner, the 6-year-old Sterling boy who survived a nearly 4-hour engulfment in a sand dune, Wednesday got to meet hundreds of extended family members he didn't even know he had.
The boy dubbed "the Miracle of Mount Baldy" and his parents returned to Michigan City for two ceremonies honoring the 139 people involved in his July 12 rescue.
Handshakes, hugs, smiles and tears were the order of the day as Greg and Faith Woessner shared their gratitude and their faith with emergency responders and hundreds of members of the Michigan City community, all of whom have taken the rambunctious towhead into their hearts.
Nathan and his family were visiting Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore State Park when he disappeared into a hole in the Mount Baldy dune and was buried beneath 11 feet of sand.
Rescuers, who feared they were recovering, not rescuing, found him nearly 4 hours later, cold and lifeless, but miraculously alive. After only 2 weeks in a hospital and some respiratory therapy, he returned home, and started first grade at Unity Christian School in Fulton with the rest of his classmates.
Wednesday, the family arrived at City Hall by limousine and with a police escort for the first ceremony, where Indiana Gov. Mike Pence presented the city and all those involved, from the first responders on the scene digging with their hands until shovels arrived, to Red Cross workers who provided water to the rescuers, with an Act of Heroism award.
It “bears the names of all 139 individuals, including Nathan's best friend ...” Pence said.
"On behalf of all the people of Indiana, I have come here today to thank you for making the Miracle at Mount Baldy happen,” he added. “Every one of you is a Hoosier hero, and you have our thanks.”
The family did not make a statement, but greeted each emergency responder as their names were read.
During the 1 p.m. ceremony at the Blue Chip Casino, presented by the city, a PowerPoint presentation on the rescue was shown and the Woessners were invited to the stage, where they gave emergency responders hugs and thanks as individual awards were presented.
Josh Zimmer, a Northern Indiana Public Services Co. worker who skipped his birthday celebration to take an excavator to Mount Baldy that day, presented a $5,000 donation for a fund set up by Michigan City firefighters to help the family with medical expenses.
When Greg Woessner took the stage, his first word was "Wow."
"This is definitely overwhelming," he said. "And as I stand here as a proud father, and look out at all of you, I see why Nathan was brought back to us."
Nathan is alive "because of the diligence and grace of your hands and the grace of God," he said. "I cannot thank you enough.
"As fervently as you searched for Nathan, I ask that you search for God in the same way," he said. "Thank you and God bless."
Faith Woessner then came to the podium, and through tears, told the rescuers how much it meant to her to return to Michigan City to meet and thank them.
She also told them about her son, a shy boy who is fun to be around once he gets to know someone.
"His favorite colors are orange, blue and camouflage," she said, which drew a laugh from the crowd. He likes watermelon and spaghetti pizza, and he likes to fish and hunt for frogs. "His biggest haul to date is 12 in one afternoon," she said, again drawing laughter.
"All around, he is a very kind, sweet, loving little boy. I am so proud to have him as our son," she said, adding that there are no words to express their gratitude for how hard rescuers worked at the scene "to bring him back to us."
“We will always be so grateful for what you did, and you will always be our heroes."
Benefit set for Saturday
Rock River Christian Center, 1800 Prophetstown Road in Rock Falls, is holding a benefit from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday for Nathan and his family, who attend the church.
There will be a fun fair, a cookout, a bake sale and a silent auction.
Volunteers to help with kids' games, and donations of baked goods and auction items are welcome, as are tractors for a small display – Nathan loves tractors.
Call the church, 815-625-4371, for more information or to help.