Roberta Ursrey and her husband took their sons, ages 8 and 11, to Panama City Beach in Florida, this past Saturday. They expected swimming, relaxation, and sun — essential beach day activities. Unfortunately, when Ursrey lost sight of her sons while swimming, she knew something had gone horribly wrong.
She first heard screaming and then spotted her boys thrashing around far out in the water. Panicked, Ursrey, followed by her husband, her 27-year-old nephew, and her 67-year-old mother ventured into the water to save the boys.
However, the Ursrey family was no match for the angry waves, which dragged them into the rip tide, trapping them as well. A few others also swam out in an attempt to rescue the boys; the total number of people treading for life was nine.
Ursrey recalled her initial reaction to NWF Daily News:
“I honestly thought I was going to lose my family that day. It was like ‘Oh God, this is how I’m going.'”
And it nearly was. However, as fate and good humanity would have it, the bystanders on Panama City Beach formed a life-saving plan.
Through a series of seemingly arbitrary events, Jessica Simmons and her husband, Derek, had ended up on the beach to have dinner.
Simmons noticed police lights flashing from the boardwalk. When Simmons realized beachgoers weren’t looking at a shark or an arrest, it dawned on her that someone was drowning. She grabbed Derek and his older niece, Kate, to form a “human chain.” Her first thought before she sprang into action was:
‘These people are not drowning today. It’s not happening. We’re going to get them out.’
She was amazed to see:
[P]eople 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.
Simmons, who is a “really good swimmer,” grabbed a boogie board before swimming out to the family.
With all the sharing we finally got a picture. This one was from the county pier that ran out in the water! In the…
As she paddled, she took notice of the members of the human chain. Everyone had chipped in to help, with less experienced swimmers standing in the shallows, while others stood deeper, with water up to their necks.
Simmons recalled being shocked when she reached the family. She wrote on Facebook how exhausted they all looked, with the adults telling her to save the children first.
But no one was dying on Simmons’s watch. Derek and Simmons worked together to keep Ursery afloat. Ursery blacked out before she reached the shore, waking up to the sounds of more screaming. Ursrey’s mother, Barbara Franz, was still in the water. Franz was having a heart attack and told Simmons and Derek to “just let her go.” Simmons recalled her interactions with Franz on Facebook:
She just kept telling us to let her be and her son was yelling at her saying, “Stay with me now, your [sic] going to be ok!” He kept shaking her to make sure she was still breathing. She was so out of it, her eyes were rolling into the back of her head.
Ursery’s husband and nephew linked together to support Franz’s body, barely staying afloat themselves.
“That’s when the chain got the biggest. They linked up wrists, legs, arms. If they were there, they were helping.”
After one hour, the crisis was over, all stranded swimmers were successfully passed down the human chain and safely returned to shore.
Ursrey couldn’t be more grateful to Simmons and Derek, as well as to the crowd of 70 strangers who risked their lives for her family’s. She told The Washington Post:
“It actually showed me there are good people in this world.”
She reflected on her “newfound respect for the power of the water,” saying:
“She’ll take you with her. She almost took nine of us that day.”
As summer progresses and temperatures get warmer, it is important to exercise caution when swimming. According to the United States Lifesaving Association:
Rip currents are responsible for claiming 100 lives in the US every year.
Currents account for 80 percent of rescues performed by lifeguards.
Rip currents can happen at any beach with breaking waves.
Before you head out to the beaches this summer, take heed of these lifesaving rip current tips to keep your family safe:
- Never swim alone.
- Opt for beaches that have lifeguards on duty.
- If caught in a rip current, keep calm in order to preserve energy.
- Don’t fight the current, but swim with it until you’re out. And then swim to shore.
- If all else fails, make your presence known by shouting for help toward shore.
Ursrey is grateful for her life and for her family’s:
“These people were God’s angels that were in the right place at the right time.”
She added: “I owe my life and my family’s life to them. Without them, we wouldn’t be here.”