‘It happened so fast’: Parents of seven-year-old girl Sloan Mattingly who suffocated in sand pit apologize to beachgoers who saw ‘pure horror’ of her being crushed as they beg other families not to dig holes on vacation

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Written By Maya Cantina

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  • The parents of Sloan Mattingly, who was buried alive on a Florida beach while playing with her brother, say the danger of sand holes ‘never crossed their mind’
  • Therese and Jason Mattingly, who rarely took vacations, say they are known for being ‘overprotective’ as parents but were more concerned about water safety.
  • The frantic rescue efforts, captured in cell phone footage, reveal the desperate attempts of beachgoers to free the children trapped in the collapsing sand

The parents of a seven-year-old girl who was buried alive on a Florida beach have apologized to those who witnessed the tragic scene, as they warned families to not dig holes in the sand.

Sloan Mattingly’s mom and dad, Therese and Jason, said the little girl and her older brother Maddox, nine, were finding seashells and playing in the sand when the unthinkable happened at a Lauderdale-by-the Sea beach.

‘It’s kind of a blur and its maybe my mind protecting itself, but it just happened so fast,’ Sloan’s grieving father said on Good Morning America. ‘In my mind, I had her in my hands but the weight of the sand was too much.’

Therese added: ‘It didn’t matter that we were literally right there… It was just a hole and then there was nothin, and then it just became chaos and horror.’

The mom went on to apologize to the beachgoers who witnessed the traumatizing situation. 

Sloan Mattingly’s mom and dad, Therese and Jason, said the little girl and her older brother Maddox, nine, were finding seashells and playing in the sand when the unthinkable happened 

Sloan died after being buried inside a sand hole and tried to save herself by grabbing onto her brother, Maddox, during her final moments

'I'm sorry. I'm so sorry you witnessed pure horror,' Therese said, while thanking those who tried to help dig Sloan out of the hole

‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry you witnessed pure horror,’ Therese said, while thanking those who tried to help dig Sloan out of the hole

Jason remembered her as a 'beam of light,' sharing that 'she would come out in the morning and fist-bump right out of bed'

Jason remembered her as a ‘beam of light,’ sharing that ‘she would come out in the morning and fist-bump right out of bed’

‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry you witnessed pure horror,’ Therese said, while thanking those who tried to help dig Sloan out of the hole.

The parents are now hoping that Sloan’s death serves as a warning to other families about the dangers of digging holes at the beach.

‘We would like to see changed if we can,’ Jason said about adding lifeguards to the Lauderdale-by-the-sea beach.

However, he added: ‘We don’t place any blame on Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.’

Experts say any holes dug should be no deeper than the knee of the shortest person digging it, GMA reported. In Sloan’s case it would have been nine inches.

Jason remembered her as a ‘beam of light,’ sharing that ‘she would come out in the morning and fist-bump right out of bed.’

The parents are now hoping that Sloan's death serves as a warning to other families about the dangers of digging holes at the beach

The parents are now hoping that Sloan’s death serves as a warning to other families about the dangers of digging holes at the beach

Experts say any holes dug should be no deeper than the knee of the shortest person digging it, GMA reported. In Sloan's case it would have been nine inches

Experts say any holes dug should be no deeper than the knee of the shortest person digging it, GMA reported. In Sloan’s case it would have been nine inches

‘If we could do anything to save another family from going through this, whether its signage, beach patrol, and if you see something that you think it’s dangerous, take the courage and say something.’

Sloan tried to save herself by grabbing onto her brother, Maddox, during her final moments. 

Her parents say they are known as being ‘overprotective’ among friends and ‘have no idea how it happened.’ 

‘That’s kind of the question we have too because we’re the kind of people that other parents or family members would roll their eyes at because we’re a little overprotective most of the time,’ Therese said to GMA.

‘I think of everything. When we go to the beach, we think of water safety. And this never, ever once crossed my mind. And course now, looking now, I think “of course!” And so that part’s really frustrating.’

It took rescuers, some of whom were regular beachgoers, 20 minutes to pull her out.

The family was visiting from Fort Wayne, Indiana when tragedy struck

The family was visiting from Fort Wayne, Indiana when tragedy struck

A crowd gathered to help try to dig the children out until the authorities arrived

A crowd gathered to help try to dig the children out until the authorities arrived 

Frantic passersby got on their knees and dug with their hands in a desperate attempt to reach the girl

Frantic passersby got on their knees and dug with their hands in a desperate attempt to reach the girl

Frantic cell phone footage showed a crowd of desperate beachgoers falling to their knees and using their hands to dig the children out of the sand. 

Some tried to hold the walls back to stop more sand from collapsing in on the children.

Sloan did not have a pulse when she emerged from the sand and was declared dead at the hospital, according to officials.

Although sand hole deaths are very rare, they are not unheard of and there have been studies and warnings published about them.

According to Dr. Stephen Leatherman from Florida International University’s Department of Earth and Environment, deep sand holes can be a death trap. 

The expert explained that once a person’s body’s is below the sand level, sand starts drying out immediately. 

‘When people dig holes more than two feet deep and get in them, at least where their body’s below the sand level, sand starts drying out immediately.

‘And dry sand can only hold a 33-degree angle and people dig these holes almost vertically.’ 

At that point, the sides of the hole usually begin to cave in very rapidly and sand begins to fall into the hole at an alarming speed.

Leatherman also pointed out that there is also a risk of someone stepping on the edge of a hole before the sand dries out and causing a massive collapse.

‘The deeper the hole, the greater the risk,’ the expert told NBC.

Sloan did not have a pulse when she emerged from the sand and was declared dead at the hospital, according to officials

Sloan did not have a pulse when she emerged from the sand and was declared dead at the hospital, according to officials

Mourners carry Sloan's small, pink coffin during a funeral service for the youngster

Mourners carry Sloan’s small, pink coffin during a funeral service for the youngster 

News reports and a 2007 medical study show that about three to five children die in the United States each year when a sand hole they are digging at the beach, a park or at home collapses on top of them. 

Others are seriously injured and require CPR to survive.

Those who died include a 17-year-old boy who was buried at a North Carolina beach last year, a 13-year-old who was digging into a sand dune at a state park in Utah and an 18-year-old who was digging with his sister at a New Jersey beach. Those two accidents happened in 2022.

“The risk of this event is enormously deceptive because of its association with relaxed recreational settings not generally regarded as hazardous,” the New England Journal of Medicine study concluded.

Lifeguards say parents need to be careful about letting their children dig at the beach and not let them get too deep.

Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, a small enclave north of Fort Lauderdale, does not have lifeguards at its beach, so there were no professionals immediately available to help. 

In Sloan’s case, the first deputies arrived about four minutes after the collapse, with paramedics and firefighters arriving moments later, according to 911 calls released by the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

The sand hole where seven-year-old Sloan died is seen taped off

The sand hole where seven-year-old Sloan died is seen taped off

A pail rests next to caution tape on a beach in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea following the tragedy

A pail rests next to caution tape on a beach in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea following the tragedy

Investigators on the beach in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea take photos of the scene last month

Investigators on the beach in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea take photos of the scene last month

The family of a seven-year-old girl have spoken of their heartbreak at the youngster's untimely death after being buried alive while on a Florida beach

The family of a seven-year-old girl have spoken of their heartbreak at the youngster’s untimely death after being buried alive while on a Florida beach

The Mattingly family are pictured with nine-year-old Maddox, left, parents Therese and Jason and seven-year-old Sloan

The Mattingly family are pictured with nine-year-old Maddox, left, parents Therese and Jason and seven-year-old Sloan 

Dad, Jason, posted a photo of the beach where the tragedy occurred the following day that saw a beam of sunlight shining down onto the shoreline

Dad, Jason, posted a photo of the beach where the tragedy occurred the following day that saw a beam of sunlight shining down onto the shoreline

Floral tributes have been left close to the scene where the little girl lost her life

Floral tributes have been left close to the scene where the little girl lost her life

Last month, tributes were left for the seven-year-old on the beach in Fort Lauderdale

Last month, tributes were left for the seven-year-old on the beach in Fort Lauderdale

The Mattingly family expressed their profound heartbreak and shared the devastating incident on a GoFundMe page that has raised more than $157,000

‘A freak accident happened while we are here on vacation and it took away our greatest 7.5 years,’ Therese Mattingly wrote on a GoFundMe page set up for the family which has raised $157,000.

‘Don’t tell us you’re sorry for our loss… don’t do that to us. We experienced the purest human being and we are forever changed by her. We love you beyond any stretch of the imagination. Our sweet Sloan. What we would give.’

Sloan’s grieving uncle, Chris Sloan, said the young girl kept trying to hold onto brother nine-year-old Maddox’s leg to get out of the sand but eventually the boy could not feel her grip anymore. 

‘We found out that after the sand had caved. She kept trying to grab up Maddox’s leg to get up out of the sand and eventually he couldn’t feel her moving anymore’, Chris told KFOR. 

He described Sloan as a girl with a ‘lot of energy and just totally innocent’.

Uncle Chris Sloan described Sloan as a girl with a 'lot of energy and just totally innocent'

Uncle Chris Sloan described Sloan as a girl with a ‘lot of energy and just totally innocent’

‘She was always happy,’ Chris said. ‘She was really fun to be around. She had a lot of energy and just totally innocent, and that’s what hurts the most in all this.’ 

Chris further said that the family rarely took vacations and were texting updates on a family group chat. 

‘They don’t really go on vacation much, but they went to Ft. Lauderdale to the beach,’ Chris said.

'She kept trying to grab up Maddox's leg to get up out of the sand, and eventually he couldn't feel her moving anymore,' the uncle said

‘She kept trying to grab up Maddox’s leg to get up out of the sand, and eventually he couldn’t feel her moving anymore,’ the uncle said

‘I got a text message as did everybody on the group chat to call a number for a conference call. 

‘Once we all got on the line, my brother, Jason, said, ‘Ok. What I have to tell you is going to be the worst news of your entire life’. 

‘And it was. He said that she had passed away, that Sloanie had passed away.

‘The sand had been up to his [Maddox] chest, and he was screaming for help, and a lot of people did come and help. There’s actually some video of that. 

‘She was non-responsive at the scene is what we know,’ Chris said.

Harrowing 911 audio released last month revealed the frantic moments beachgoers attempted to save Sloan after she was fatally buried.

A panic-stricken witness can be heard telling a dispatcher how her mother was desperately yelling: ‘My daughter is in there.’

‘Everybody’s screaming’ the caller continued, as people cried out in the background: ‘They do not see her head, they do not see her.’ 

After around 20 minutes, the young girl was eventually pulled out of the sand but tragically succumbed to her injuries and was pronounced dead on arrival at hospital. 

Witnesses said the horror unfolded after Sloan and her older brother Maddox were playing in the hole when the ground gave way.

Sloan's older brother Maddox was able to be rescued from the hole first, and was taken to hospital in stable condition after also being injured in the collapse

Sloan’s older brother Maddox was able to be rescued from the hole first, and was taken to hospital in stable condition after also being injured in the collapse 

Sloan with her dad Jason, who said she was 'full of life'

Sloan with her dad Jason, who said she was ‘full of life’

The family is seen on another holiday a few years back in a photo posted to Facebook

The family is seen on another holiday a few years back in a photo posted to Facebook

Separate audio of the 911 dispatcher alerting officers to the beach noted that around 20 bystanders had rushed to join the efforts to dig the girl out of the sand.

The person who initially called 911 began by telling the dispatcher there was ‘a bunch of people trying to dig.’ 

She said she realized something was wrong when she heard ‘the father yelling for help’, who ‘said his child is caught in a hole in the sand.’

‘The mom’s yelling, “my daughter is in there”‘, she continued. ‘Everybody’s screaming.’ 

Parents Jason and Therese are pictured above

Parents Jason and Therese are pictured above

Dad, Jason, had been updating the family on the progress of their vacation on social media

Dad, Jason, had been updating the family on the progress of their vacation on social media 

Panicked screaming and yelling can be heard in the background of the audio, and the woman who called 911’s voice broke as she warned the dispatcher: ‘They have not gotten the child out yet.’

She said she couldn’t detail the exact situation as ‘everybody is surrounding’ the collapsed hole, but noted that she couldn’t see the young girl’s head above the sand.

‘Oh, this mother… oh this is awful,’ they said at the conclusion of the call – seconds before a grief-filled wail was heard in the background. 

The siblings, their dad and mom Therese, 36, were visiting from Fort Wayne, Indiana when tragedy struck.

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