Indiana girl, 7, buried alive playing in hole on south Florida beach

When Indiana siblings Sloan and Maddox Mattingly arrived at Lauderdale-by-the-Sea beach, they were eager to engage in the classic childhood pastime of playing and digging in the sand. However, what began as innocent fun quickly turned into a tragedy as the sand unexpectedly swallowed them, resulting in the loss of seven-year-old Sloan’s life and leaving her nine-year-old brother Maddox fighting for survival in the hospital.

The parents, Therese and Jason Mattingly, had embarked on a family vacation from their home in Fort Wayne, Indiana, seeking respite from the winter chill in the sunny beaches of Florida. On February 20, while enjoying their time at the beach, tragedy struck as the children played near their parents, unwittingly venturing into a large sand hole.

The idyllic vacation took a devastating turn when bystanders heard screams and witnessed frantic attempts to dig through the sand hole. A distressed beachgoer promptly called 911, reporting the alarming situation of a child trapped in the sand. According to reports, the children’s father urgently sought assistance as the sand enveloped his daughter, Sloan, while his wife also cried out for help.

Emergency response teams swiftly arrived at the scene, employing support boards to prevent further sand collapse and utilizing shovels to excavate the trapped siblings from the perilous hole. Despite their efforts, Sloan succumbed to the ordeal, and Maddox was rushed to the hospital in critical condition.

As of now, Maddox’s condition remains uncertain, and the Mattingly family, along with their loved ones, grapple with the unforeseen tragedy that has claimed the life of a cherished child and left another fighting for survival.

“A tragic incident occurred during our vacation, taking away our beloved 7.5-year-old daughter. Please refrain from offering condolences; instead, cherish the memories of our pure-hearted Sloan, who has forever changed us with her presence,” writes her mother on the GoFundMe page set up to support the family financially. “Our love for you knows no bounds, our sweet Sloan. We would give anything to have you back.”

The GoFundMe campaign, which has raised nearly $146,000 of its $150,000 target, states: “What started as a wonderful family trip turned into the heartbreaking loss of their 7-year-old daughter/sister Sloan. While no amount of money can bring Sloan back, your donation can help bring her home from Florida, cover funeral expenses, and alleviate financial burdens as they adjust to their new reality.”

Meanwhile, friends and family are expressing their love for the “sweet girl” who “was much more than her final moments.”

Family friend Whitney Kanjala shares a photo of the family outside Sloan’s Luxury Ice Cream shop in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Alongside the image on her Facebook, she writes, “She was the funniest friend you could ever ask for, the most loyal sister, the tiniest yet most acrobatic…and one of the greatest creations Therese Mattingly and Jason Mattingly ever made.”

On February 22, Sloan’s father shared the same photo: “We took Sloan to this ice cream shop with her name on it. It was a rainy nasty day but we made the best of what we had. We also hit up a local arcade and sang makeshift karaoke at our Airbnb.”

Locals ‘devastated,’ ‘shocked’

“I’ve lived here 50 years, I’ve never seen anything like that,” one local told CBS about the beach that currently has no lifeguards on duty. “I’m shocked. I’m absolutely shocked. I had no idea that digging out…something could happen where it could collapse underneath someone just hanging out and playing on the beach.”

Another local offered his own theories about the hole.

Speaking with NBC Miami, local Harry Defina explains that the children were playing in a hole previously dug by a man, only about 30 minutes before tragedy struck.

“I was walking by the beach, and I saw a man…digging a really big hole…up to his chest. I looked at him and he looked back, and I walked away, I didn’t think to go over and tell him not to do it,” Defina said. “I’m even upset that someone would imply that those kids dug that hole. They didn’t dig that hole. It was massive and it ended up like 18-feet-by-6-feet.”

Struggling to hold back his tears, Defina shares what he saw when the kids were buried: “I see kids in the hole. I could see the boy a little bit, but all I can see…I’m not going to be able to finish this…all I could see was the top of the girl’s head.”

Police are still investigating the incident, which also prompted a warning from the American Lifeguard Association about the dangers of sand holes.

“The recent incident in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea is a heart-wrenching reminder of why we must work together to keep our beaches safe,” said Bernard J. Fisher II, the association’s director of health and safety. “By implementing these measures and fostering a community of safety and awareness, we can prevent future tragedies and ensure that our beaches remain places of joy and recreation for everyone.”

The association is advocating for increased beach patrols in areas known for sand digging.

Rest in peace, little one. It is tragic that innocent children were engaging in harmless play when something so horrifying occurred.

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