What’s true of the Indiana Dunes is true of any body of water. Danger lurks under the surface.
There have been more than 20 drownings in these Lake Michigan waters since 2010.
In 2013, one drowning was hundreds of yards away from the lake. In fact, this threat to a 6-year-old boy didn’t involve a drop of water. And its unthinkable occurrence astounded the world.
It was a July day on a family outing to the popular beach at Mt. Baldy. A 126-foot dune an hour’s drive from Chicago. The Woessner family made that trip from their home in Sterling, Illinois.
That’s where we found Nathan’s parents, to take us back to that traumatic summer day a decade ago.
“It pretty much started out as a long weekend, camping with friends,” Greg recalled. “There was a trail going up to the top of the dunes.”
Nathan and his friend were following their dads. Suddenly, a panicked call to the dads from the friend who said Nathan disappeared in a hole. Through his initial confusion, there it was: “Plain as day, a round, black hole about 15-18 inches in diameter perfectly round hole right straight down,” Greg said.
Greg could hear Nathan, but couldn’t see him.
“(I) was actually talking with Nathan, he was still down there, you could tell he was worked up, scared. Just pretty much trying to calm him down. We’ll get to you, don’t worry,” Greg said.
But then, seconds later, as Greg and his friend were digging, the hole collapsed.
Nathan’s friend ran down to get help, another dad ran over the dune to the parking lot to a phone to call 911. By then the other boy made it to Nathan’s mom.
“Just by the tone of his voice and his expression, he was just so frightened, and it frightened me,” Faith remembered. “My mind couldn’t grasp or understand and I just remember, ‘no, no, no, no!'”
Together, on their knees, furiously clawing at the sand, the situation was dire.
“I was digging, Greg was digging, we were digging with all of our might, and the sand, it was so unforgiving,” Faith said. “I remember praying, immediately praying, asking God to give him air to breathe, to hold him and I kept repeating that over and over. ‘Hold him, give him air to breathe.'”
Emergency responders arrived. Strangers joined in. With shovels at first, then excavating equipment.
“If you ever dig in sand, you’re never getting anywhere, unless you try to get so big,” Greg said.
A backhoe was brought in, but still no sign of Nathan.
“I remember telling (God), ‘I need him back I need you to give him back to me. I know he’s special but I need him back,’ and it was that same prayer over and over and over,” Faith said.
Agonizingly. The effort stretched on. Greg: “At this point, it’s been so long they were on a recovery mission now, and not a rescue.”
Josh Zimmer was prepared for the worst. He was called upon to bring his bigger backhoe to pick up where the smaller one left off. Together they did the careful work of digging.
“It’s very slow and meticulous,” Zimmer said. “Ryan had a probe which is just a metal rod it’s about 4 foot down probing the ground to see if he could feel something. And then we would do a grid and I would nice and gentle two inches at a time.”
Then, the news finally came. More than three hours later. Nearly 12 feet underground. They reached Nathan after unearthing 400 tons of sand. But as many feared, the outcome was grim. His body was limp and cold. He had no pulse.
“I don’t know if you want to call it a mood but it was quiet and sad and still because nobody knew, he had no vital signs,” Zimmer recalled.
And in that moment of darkness, as Greg and Faith were on their way to the hospital to identify the body, is where the Miracle on Mt. Baldy was revealed; a paramedic noticed a wound on Nathan’s face was bleeding, telling him his heart was still pumping.
“They went into a frenzy suddenly he was back and they were doing everything they could to stabilize him,” Faith said.
“They rushed us over to the hospital,” Greg struggles to find the words, and motions toward his wife. “That’s the point right there in the waiting room, but he came in, right to her, he’s alive.”
Faith replies: “Best words I ever heard.”
Today, Nathan is a student at Unity Christian School in Fulton, where he’s a 16-year-old sophomore.
“Well, I don’t remember much about it,” Nathan offered. “I do remember walking up the hill beside my friend. Next thing I remember is waking up with a bunch of nurses and everyone around me.”
After a week of treatment at Comer Children’s Hospital in Chicago, Nathan bears no sign of his childhood trauma, physically, or emotionally. He’s a standout athlete on the school’s basketball team. He plays soccer and is a member of the brand-new school volleyball team.
What he does have is gratitude.
“God was there and God is the reason I’m still here today,” Nathan said. “I’ll just be casually thinking about something and it’ll come to mind. And it reminds me and gives me hope that there’s a plan and that I’m meant for something.”
“He doesn’t live in a way that’s timid or shy,” said Jackie Hass, one of Nathan’s teachers at Unity Christian School. “He’s very vivacious. He takes what happened to him to really understand that life is an opportunity and a gift and you have to enjoy it every day, because he does!”
“Every experience, every new memory watching him grow, every birthday new sports, new friends,” Nathan’s mom said. “I have really thoroughly enjoyed watching him experience that, it’s not lost on me that we could have just as easily not had that.”
Someone else was changed by that day: Josh Zimmer, who also knew he was part of something bigger than any of them could understand.
“I just couldn’t go to sleep that night, and I knew God was real,” Zimmer said. “Because he did something I know was impossible.”
That night, he called his family’s pastor and was baptized in the church.
“My in-laws came, they got out of bed, and my wife and the preacher’s wife, yeah it was a life-changing moment.”
How did Nathan survive his time buried in the sand?
“There are stories about a dead tree trunk and an air pocket down in the ground, but I think the Lord was with me the whole time. He has a purpose for me and I don’t think my time was then,” Nathan said.
How the void developed in the shifting sands is still being studied, but for everyone involved, there is little doubt about what they witnessed.
“God spoke to me,” Faith said. “He spoke to my heart, ‘I’m giving him back to you he’s a gift to you, I love you,’ it was such an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and awe.”
Greg offered his hard-earned insight: “Slow down and capture and love every moment that you can with your kids, your loved ones.”