New Jersey beach sand collapse: firefighter describes efforts to uncover victims

Despite first responders’ efforts, Levi Caverly, 18, died in the collapse of a 10-foot hole he dug on the beach

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A New Jersey firefighter says his department is still recovering emotionally after attempting to dig two teenage victims out of a sand collapse at Toms River’s Ocean Beach on Tuesday.

Despite first responders’ efforts, Levi Caverly, 18, died in the collapse of a 10-foot hole he dug on the beach with his 17-year-old sister, whom rescuers saved after hours of digging.

"Our prayers are with the family," Brian Kubiel, chief administrator of Toms River Fire District 1, told Fox News Digital on Thursday. 

During a family beach trip, Levi Caverly, 18, and his 17-year-old sister were digging a 10-foot hole when it caved in and trapped them. The sister escaped, but the 18-year-old teen passed away during the collapse. 

During a family beach trip, Levi Caverly, 18, and his 17-year-old sister were digging a 10-foot hole when it caved in and trapped them. The sister escaped, but the 18-year-old teen passed away during the collapse.  (Todd Caverly/ Facebook)

Fire department personnel, as well as the close-knit community of Toms River, are "emotional" about the tragic loss of Caverly, but they are grateful they were able to rescue his sister, Kubiel said. The pair, who were visiting the Jersey Shore from Maine with their parents, apparently dug the hole in wet weather, causing the walls to collapse around them while they were inside it. 

While the Jersey Shore has seen sand holes collapse, the tragic accident was new to Toms River.

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"Sand is very unstable," Kubiel explained, adding that rescuing people trapped from collapsed sand holes involved a very diligent digging process. "You can't use heavy machinery because you don't know what's beneath the sand" or how the victims are positioned under its surface. Heavy equipment could harm those trapped beneath the collapse or cause more vibrations in the sand, potentially making the collapse worse. 

Levi Caverly passed away during a family vacation to Toms River, N.J. 

Levi Caverly passed away during a family vacation to Toms River, N.J.  (Todd Caverly/ Facebook)

Other than one machine used to remove the sand away from the victims, a large group of rescuers including firefighters, police, lifeguards and the teenagers' father were "digging on their hands and knees." 

Cavlery's 17-year-old sister, whose name has not been reported, was pulled from the hole alive. Crews did not retrieve Caverly’s body from the sand until nearly two hours after the rescue started. 

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First-responders can be heard walking through the rescue process in audio of a dispatch call from the Tuesday scene.

"We have one still buried up to the chest. Another one is below the sand," one responder can be heard saying amid the rescue. "One is completely submerged under the sand, probably approximately 10 feet."

A teen digging on a New Jersey beach died Tuesday, and his younger sister was rescued after police say both out-of-towners became trapped beneath the sand when the hole collapsed on top of them. 

A teen digging on a New Jersey beach died Tuesday, and his younger sister was rescued after police say both out-of-towners became trapped beneath the sand when the hole collapsed on top of them.  (Fox 29 Philadelphia)

The audio continues: "Front end loader is arriving, and we have the second victim’s head above the sand … will administer oxygen."

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A short time later, a responder can be heard saying, "EIghteen-year-old male … history of heart … head is just above the sand now … no breathing."

Kubiel is encouraging anyone who wants to dig holes in the sand not to dig past their knees.

A teen digging on a New Jersey beach died Tuesday, and his younger sister was rescued after police say both out-of-towners became trapped beneath the sand when the hole collapsed on top of them. 

A teen digging on a New Jersey beach died Tuesday, and his younger sister was rescued after police say both out-of-towners became trapped beneath the sand when the hole collapsed on top of them.  (Fox 29 Philadelphia)

"First of all, we want everyone to come have fun on the Jersey Shore," he said, adding that rescuers can easily pull people out of a sand collapse if they don't dig holes deeper than their knees.

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The agencies that assisted at the scene included: Silverton EMS, Toms River EMS, Toms River Fire Companies, Toms River Fire Technical Rescue Team, Lavallette Fire Company, Lavallette Police Department, Lavallette Public Works, Seaside Heights Fire Company, Toms River Police Detective Bureau, Ocean County Sheriff CIU, and the Ocean County Prosecutors Office.

In July 2020, Belmar police said an 8-year-old boy became trapped in an eight-foot hole, and rescue crews called in managed to pull him to safety. In August 2015, a 12-year-old boy was air lifted to the hospital after a hole he was digging on a beach in Surf City collapsed on him, according to the Asbury Park Press.

Fox News' Brie Stimson and Danielle Wallace contributed to this report.