Bruce Rowe (left), supervisory park ranger with the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, addresses the media at Mt. Baldy at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan City, Ind., Monday, August 12, 2013. Crews from the United States Environmental Protection Agency began using a combination of ground penetrating radar and GPS Monday to scan the dunes in search of voids. One moth ago to the day, on July 12, 2013, six-year-old Nathan Woessner had to be extricated from the dune after sinking into a hole. | Guy Rhodes/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 14, 2013 6:11AM
MICHIGAN CITY — A white pole sticks out of the sand on Mount Baldy, marking where, on July 12, Nathan Woessner stepped onto a spot on the dune that gave way, burying the 6-year-old boy in 11 feet of sand for 3½ hours.
While Nathan, who was on vacation from his Sterling, Ill., home with his family, continues to recover from his ordeal — his survival has been called miraculous, given the circumstances — scientists and officials with the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore have been left struggling to determine what caused the collapse.
Monday, they took another step in finding out what happened, bringing in staff and equipment from the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 5 office in Chicago.
The equipment included a global positioning system, worn on the back of one of the EPA staffers, and ground penetrating radar, which rolled along the sand on black wheels, almost like a lawn mower. The EPA also will be bringing in ground-sensing equipment that will be used for a conductivity survey; that will show any anomalies below the surface.
While park officials led the research team and area media up the path taken by rescue equipment the day Nathan was buried, Mount Baldy remains closed to the public for the immediate future.
“We have no intention of reopening that dune until we know the science of how that dune fell, so this is a very important day,” Bruce Rowe, the park’s public information officer, said Monday.
The dune is about 126 feet high and encompasses 43 acres. Much of that will be scanned, in grid fashion, with the equipment from the EPA. Both the staffing and the equipment are being provided to the national park at no cost to it; there is no immediate deadline for the EPA to come forward with the results of the scan.
“The EPA will be out here as long as it’s needed,” said Francisco Arcaute, a spokesman from the agency’s Region 5 office.
He called the dune collapse “a very unique situation,” and added the equipment his office is providing is worth $30,000, and is more typically used to investigate Superfund pollution sites.
The equipment can scan 30 feet under the surface and will be able to provide researchers with images of what lies below the dune. One theory about what happened to Nathan is that a tree below the surface shifted, causing the hole, Rowe said. Pictures of Mount Baldy from 1935 show trees on that spot.
“We are here to essentially look under the ground,” Rowe said, adding investigators will check out other unstable areas if they are found.
Since the dune collapsed, Rowe has heard from two people who said they have witnessed similar events, including one person who sank knee-high into the sand at Mount Baldy and another one on a private dune in southwest Michigan.
Still, nothing has occurred to the extent of what happened on Mount Baldy last month, even at other parks with shifting dunes. Mount Baldy is shifting at a rate of 10 to 15 feet a year, Rowe said, and much of it has been blocked off from hikers for the past few years to slow erosion and help the reestablishment of dune grass.
“In terms of science literature, we have found nothing like this. It really is new science,” he said, adding the results of the research on Mount Baldy could be extrapolated for use in other places with shifting dunes.