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‘It was a near-death situation’: Mother recounts rescue of daughter buried in sand on Chatham beach

Heidi Filmer-Gallagher, of Brewster, watched as a rescue team dug her 15-year-old daughter out of a hole on North Beach Island in Chatham Sunday. Sand collapsed around the girl when she hit water as she dug the hole.
Heidi Filmer-Gallagher, of Brewster, watched as a rescue team dug her 15-year-old daughter out of a hole on North Beach Island in Chatham Sunday. Sand collapsed around the girl when she hit water as she dug the hole.Heidi Filmer-Gallagher

A 15-year-old girl was rescued after a hole she dug on a beach in Chatham Sunday collapsed around her, trapping her in wet, heavy sand.

“I’ve lived on Cape Cod for 23 years and I’ve been a boater the entire time. It just didn’t cross my mind that this could happen,” said the girl’s mother, Heidi Filmer-Gallagher, of Brewster. “It was a near-death situation for her and I’ve had a really hard time the last two days.”

Filmer-Gallagher was visiting North Beach Island with her three children and a friend Sunday afternoon. She was on the other side of the beach collecting seashells with her friend when one of her kids called her cellphone around 5 p.m.

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They frantically told her that her daughter, Tessa, had been buried under sand while digging a large hole. Filmer-Gallagher said she immediately ran as fast as she could to get back to her kids, envisioning Tessa completely covered in sand.

“That’s the one thing that keeps going through my head over and over, is the way it felt thinking she was totally under,” Filmer-Gallagher said. “When I got to the other side, she was up to her neck and her head was poking out. It was a giant relief, but the worry on the way there was so intense it keeps haunting me.”

Tessa was still in danger. The cold, wet sand that had collapsed around was pressing against her chest, making it hard for her to breathe and impossible to move.

“It was like cement,” Filmer-Gallagher said.

The sand caved in around Tessa even more when her mother and teen sister tried to dig her out. Filmer-Gallagher’s friend called 911 and within minutes, a rescue team from the Chatham Fire Department arrived by boat.

Chatham Fire Deputy Chief Justin Tavano said officials initially had trouble pinpointing the family’s exact location on the island, but dispatchers used the caller’s cellphone latitude and longitude information to find them.

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Crews quickly started to dig Tessa out, placing a large black tube around her to keep more sand from pressing against her as they shoveled. Small cups from the family’s cooler were also used to scoop sand out of the tube.

A member of the Chatham Fire Department spoke to a 15-year-old girl after she became trapped in sand on a beach in Chatham Sunday.
A member of the Chatham Fire Department spoke to a 15-year-old girl after she became trapped in sand on a beach in Chatham Sunday.Heidi Filmer-Gallagher

“It was really labor-intensive and challenging,” Tavano said. “We had to dig a little, reposition the tube to keep out more sand, and then dig a little and reposition the tube again.”

While Filmer-Gallagher watched nervously, Tessa remained calm.

“She just sat there and nodded her head and listened to everything they said as they coached her, and she was completely fine,” Filmer-Gallagher said. “I think she was in a bit of shock.”

It took about 30 minutes for crews to clear enough sand for Tessa to wiggle out of the hole. Once they did, she “jumped out pretty quickly,” Tavano said.

Tessa still had feeling in all of her limbs but was cold and shivering from the wet sand. Crews brought her back to the Chatham fish pier and evaluated her inside an ambulance. She was a bit shaken, but uninjured.

Filmer-Gallagher said the hole caved in when her daughter hit water as she was digging.

“She had been digging with her hands and scooping out the sand,” Filmer-Gallagher said. “Thank God she wasn’t bending over when it collapsed.”

Another teenager and a woman in her 40s were buried in sand while digging on a part of Nauset Beach in Orleans last month. Like Tessa, they escaped without serious injury.

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Filmer-Gallagher said she hopes people will keep her daughter’s story in mind while digging at the beach.

“I’m hoping this will help someone else in the future and prevent something like this from happening again,” she said.

Caroline Enos can be reached at caroline.enos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineEnos.