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'No one considered that this could happen'


He was just a little boy, digging in the sand with a yellow plastic shovel -- a sight so common in Ocean City that most people on the beach that day don't remember him particularly. Then the hole collapsed and 12-year-old Clinton Hoffman suffocated under the sand.

"No one considered that this could happen," said Detective William T. Cocco, one of the officers who investigated the accident. "It's just a big hole, and he's a little guy. It's like an avalanche . . . it happens in a second and it's done."

The Hagerstown child died Wednesday afternoon when a five-foot hole that he and two other 12-year-olds had dug collapsed on him. Authorities said no one saw the accident.

Based on accounts provided by witnesses, other children and the boy's mother, Debbie Hoffman, police offered this reconstruction of events:

Sometime Wednesday afternoon, Clinton, a stepbrother and a third child went to the beach in front of the Golden Sands Club Condominium, where they and their families were staying, and began digging holes about halfway down the wide beach.

About 5 p.m., the three boys returned to the condominium, zTC where they had dinner at a beachfront restaurant-bar. Then the three children went back to the beach, unaccompanied by adults. Clinton continued to dig in one of the holes, which were well behind the lifeguard stands, toward the dune line. The other two boys went to the water to swim.

When they returned some 20 minutes later, they told police, Clinton was not in sight.

The boys saw the hole had collapsed but didn't think Clinton was in it. They looked for him up and down the beach, then went to get the adults, who also searched.

Finally, Clinton's mother called police shortly after 6 p.m. When the officers realized that the child could be in a collapsed hole, they called firefighters, who dug him out.

The Hoffman family could not be reached for comment.

Others who were on the beach Wednesday said they saw nothing out of the ordinary before the accident.

"We were down on the beach until about 6," recalled Judy Weaver, who came from Lititz, Pa., for a week's vacation at the Golden Sands. "They would have been to the left of us [on the beach]. . . . I didn't notice the kids digging in the sand. I guess everybody kind of minds their own business."

Paul Mancini and his wife, Judy, also were staying at the Golden Sands. They said that they had seen a lot of holes in the sand.

Mr. Mancini said that during an evening stroll this week, their two older children, who are 5 and 2, got in one of them. Seeing how deep the holes were, he said, he became alarmed and quickly got them out.

"I remembered hearing that kids shouldn't play in holes over their heads because they can collapse," said Mr. Mancini, a Baltimore native who now lives near Philadelphia.

"I know there were a lot of holes all week long," Mrs. Mancini said. "Some serious holes had been dug. You look around on a crowded beach and everyone's digging holes."

Such digging can be dangerous, Ocean City officials said.

"Anything like that in sand is not stable," said Capt. George Schoepf, head of the Ocean City Beach Patrol. When members of the Beach Patrol see deep holes, they will tell the diggers to fill them in, he said.

"Our first priority for the lifeguards is the water -- that's where the danger is," said Dennis Dare, city manager. "We have a beach ordinance that prohibits digging holes on the beach and leaving them," he said.

Although it has not happened in Ocean City recently, Clinton was not the first child to die after digging a too-deep hole on the beach. The state does not keep statistics on sand-collapse deaths, according to the Baltimore office of the medical examiner, but Captain Schoepf said he remembered two deaths in similar circumstances about a decade ago.

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