A group of complete strangers helped save a family of six and four other swimmers after they were swept away by dangerous rip currents at Panama City Beach in Florida over the weekend.
Two people involved in the rescue – Jessica and Derek Simmons – spotted beachgoers looking towards the water and knew something was wrong. 100 yards out in the water nearly a dozen people were crying out for help.
“I automatically thought SHARK. So I slowly start coming out of the water as Derek went over to find out what is going on,” Jessica Simmons wrote on Facebook. “That is when I seen the police truck on the beach…and that is when I knew someone was drowning…my heart sank. When I ran over there, I found out that they got caught in the Rip Tide that had claimed so many lives before. I knew we had to do something. Derek, Kate (his niece) and some people started gathering people on the beach to form a ‘HUMAN CHAIN’.”
Jessica is a great swimmer but had discovered that other strong swimmers had attempted to help the family and only to get caught up in the powerful waves themselves. So the human chain made sense. Soon more and more people were joining the chain to reach the stranded swimmers, who were desperately trying to stay above water.
There was no lifeguard on duty, and law enforcement on the scene had opted to wait for a rescue boat. So the people on the beach had no rescue equipment, only boogie boards, surf boards and their arms and legs.
“I went past the 50 plus people in the human chain and went straight to them with Derek right behind me. When I got there, there was 2 small children, a mother, a grandmother, a older son and a Chinese couple telling me they was so tired, that they just couldn’t do it anymore. They tell me to save the kids first, so I gave the little boy a boogie board and told the mom to hang on to it,” wrote Simmons.
“After 15 mins, of me pulling them towards the human chain, The group of people PULLED him to shore like a chain. I took the boogie board and went back in and handed it to the grandmother, who at this point was barely alive. She was so out of it, that we couldn’t keep her on the board. She looked right at Derek and told him,’Let me go, just let me die and save your self’. My heart sank. I was not going to let this lady die.” Simmons recounted.
A surfer came out and helped her and Derek with a surfboard and and 30 minutes of effort and they were able to pull everyone to shore. By the time they had gotten back to shore the chain was close to 80 people. “At the end when we got the last person in, our chain grew to 70 strangers holding hand in hand to save these people,” wrote Simmons. “Had we NOT had the surf board, the boogie boards, the HUMAN chain of over 70 inspiring life saving people and just staying calm to get out of the rip tide, we would have never been able to bring them to shore alive.”
The entire beach applauded, when nearly an hour later, everyone was safely on shore.
One of the people caught in the rip tide was Roberta Ursrey. It was her two sons – Noah, 11, and Stephen, 8, who had gotten separated on their boogie boards and were rescued first by Simmons. Her mother, Barbara Franz, had a heart attack while in the water and was the one who told Derek to “let her go”. She is now recovering in hospital. Ursrey’s 27-year-old nephew and husband were also rescued.
Ursrey told the Washington Post that she thought she and her family were going to die. “It was beachgoers and the grace of God’s will,” Ursrey said. “That’s why we’re here today.”
Jessica Simmons feels similarly. “To see people from different races and genders come into action to help TOTAL strangers is absolutely amazing to see!! People who didn’t even know each other went HAND IN HAND IN A LINE, into the water to try and reach them,” wrote Simmons. “Pause and just IMAGINE that.”