"She said, 'Dad, Dad, we can't find him, he's under the sand,'" said Reul, a minister from Galva, Ill.
But he understood little else, and by the time he hung up, he believed that his grandson had fallen on the beach at Indiana Dunes National Seashore and had been pulled into Lake Michigan.
"I said, 'Nathan has died, he's drowned,'" Reul told his wife.
The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, running for about 25 miles along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, is a popular vacation spot that has long attracted families, hikers and birdwatchers. The dune Nathan fell feet-first into is one of the tallest, the 123-foot-tall Mount Baldy.
Nathan's 8-year-old friend rushed to where his dad and Nathan's dad were, and told them Nathan had vanished. Reul said that by the time Nathan's father found the hole, he could hear his son, but not see him.
The two men frantically dug sand from the spot where Nathan had fallen, but stopped after it was about 4 feet deep, Reul said, realizing they might have driven Nathan "deeper and deeper." Faith Woessner, meanwhile, was begging people to help them dig.
Michigan City, Ind., firefighters soon arrived and excavating companies brought backhoes and other heavy equipment to try to catch up with the boy, who was still sinking into the sand. According to media reports, the first responders pushed a rod down into the sand in the hopes of finding the boy.
Hours passed without a sign of Nathan. Huffman, the coroner, who said he had been hanging back from the dig site out of respect for the family, arrived on the scene, which Reul said must have been a sure sign that officials feared the worst: It wouldn't be a rescue.
Then, volunteer firefighter Ryan Miller, the vice president of an excavating company, spotted the outline of what looked like a rotten tree about 11 feet down — maybe more — and pushed the rod until it stopped at the boy. Michigan City firefighter Brad Kreighbaum reached down and "felt what he believed to be Nathan's head," Miller said.