Assessing the Average Quicksand Deaths Per Year

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 
quicksand, england, stream
Contrary to the popular image of quicksand occurring in the desert, it's more common near streams, marshes and on the beach. Mark Williamson/Getty Images

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, TV and movie screenwriters desperate to finish a script would fall back upon a convenient, if hackneyed, plot twist: A character steps into a pit of quicksand, requiring a dramatic rescue to keep them from being sucked under. It made it seem like American saw thousands of quicksand deaths per year.

But since then, the shock value of quicksand seems to have worn off, and it's pretty much vanished from popular culture — except for a recent humorous appearance in a Geico commercial, where the protagonist fruitlessly implores a house cat to save him from being smothered.


A Patch of Densely Packed Wet Sand

If quicksand doesn't haunt our collective media-induced nightmares with the frequency that it once did, one reason may be scientists' and outdoors experts repeated debunking of the menace as depicted on the big and small screens. To understand what it can and can't do in real life, it's important to know just what quicksand actually is — just a bunch of densely packed wet sand.

This means that the friction between sand particles is reduced, and the overall mass becomes unable to support the weight that dry sand could. It's found most often in river deltas and sometimes on beaches, but a quicksand formation can also develop when an earthquake stirs up water from underground aquifers and destabilizes the compacted sand grains above.


Science Finds Solid Ground

But while quicksand is real, the idea that you could be sucked under its surface and completely disappear just isn't so. In a 2005 study, University of Amsterdam researcher Daniel Bonn — who had heard cautionary stories about quicksand from shepherds while on a visit to Iran — and colleagues replicated quicksand in a laboratory.

They then placed aluminum beads with the same density as a typical human body atop the mixture, and shook it. Even though the quicksand collapsed, the beads didn't get sucked under. Instead, they floated atop the surface, never more than half-submerged.


Quicksand Deaths

But as Bonn told the journal Nature, the biggest danger of quicksand is getting stuck in it on a beach during low tide, and then being drowned when the tide comes in. Back in January 2012, that apparently happened to a 33-year-old British woman visiting the island of Antigua for her father's wedding.

According to an account in the Telegraph, the victim went the beach to watch the sunset, and cried out after becoming stuck in quicksand — but no one heard her. Night fell and the tide rose before rescuers could reach her and she died. "It is frightening how quickly it all happened," the local coroner testified at a hearing, according to the newspaper.


If you get stuck in quicksand along a river or lake, you're in somewhat less dire straits, though you still could succumb to a slower death from thirst or exposure if you remain stuck long enough, or even suffocation if your face becomes submerged depending on your position.

Texas authorities think that may have killed 50-year-old Jose Rey Escobedo, a man who apparently went swimming in the San Antonio River in 2015. Authorities found the man's body three days later, face-down and lodged in quicksand up to the bottom of his buttocks, according to a 2016 Houston Chronicle article. What's more, Jose Rey Escobedo marked the only death from quicksand reported in the state over a five-year-period.

And in 2016 in Florida, a 78-year-old man survived being stuck in quicksand near a creek for eight hours, rescued only after a city vehicle fortuitously passed by and workers heard his cries for help.


How to Survive Quicksand

If you ever find yourself in such a situation, quicksand researcher Bonn told National Geographic that the best way to escape is to stay calm, and focus on steady and deliberate leg and arm movements. With enough tiny movements you can create a space between your legs and the sandy soil.

This enables water to flow down and loosen the sand, so you can slip out and retreat to firm ground. Do it slowly, so that you don't panic, and keep in mind that the quicksand itself can't kill people. It's also a good idea to take walks on the beach with a companion, and to carry a mobile phone so you can call for help if needed.


Quicksand Safety 101

Quicksand, once a staple of Hollywood plotlines, may have been debunked by scientists as the all-consuming menace it was depicted as, but its dangers are not to be entirely dismissed. While the dense mixture of wet sand won't swallow someone whole, getting trapped can pose real threats, such as drowning during high tide or succumbing to the elements.

The tragedies of those who've encountered it underscore its very real perils. Should one find themselves ensnared, remaining calm and using slow movements can aid in escape, as water is introduced and the sand loosens.


As with many natural hazards, prevention — such as traveling with company and having a means of communication — is key. This serves as a reminder that while science demystifies many of our fears, respect for the unpredictability of nature remains paramount.

For more tips, check out this BrainStuff video: