While enjoying the water at Panama City Beach in Florida, nine swimmers, most of whom were from a single family, were pulled out to sea by a riptide. There were no lifeguards on duty at the time and, after a failed attempt to swim out to the stranded group, law enforcement decided it was best to just wait for a rescue boat. So fellow beachgoers did what good people do in times of trouble: They teamed up and looked out for one another.
According to the Panama City News Herald, Roberta Ursrey had just returned to the beach when she heard her two sons, ages 11 and 8, scream.
“They were screaming and crying that they were stuck,” Ursrey remembered. “People were saying, ‘Don’t go out there.’”
However, no mother can watch her children drown, so Ursrey began to swim out to her boys along with other members of her family, including her mother. Some good Samaritans also swam out to help, but soon they were all caught in powerful water.
“I honestly thought I was going to lose my family that day,” Ursrey said. “It was like, ‘Oh God, this is how I’m going.’”
According to The Washington Post, they had been treading water for almost 20 minutes and the likelihood of all 10 people drowning grew with the time. However, on the shore people were working on a rescue.
Jessica Simmons and her husband noticed the flashing lights of the police vehicle, concerned crowd, and bobbing heads crying for help in the distance.
"I automatically thought they had seen a shark,” Simmons told reporters. “I ran back to shore and my husband ran over to them. ... That’s when I knew someone was drowning.”
Then, not one to sit by idly when lives are in danger, Simmons affirmed something with herself: "These people are not drowning today. It’s not happening. We’re going to get them out.”
Both strong swimmers, Simmons and her husband were comfortable paddling out to save the Ursreys and others, but there is greater strength in numbers. Fellow beachgoers, even some who couldn't swim, formed an 80-person human chain running over 100 yards out from the shore. Simmons and her husband then swam the remaining distance. One by one, they passed the exhausted people back to the human chain, which would then pull them back to shore.
Florida family rescued by beachgoers' human chain https://t.co/vEZ3ym1nZi— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) July 11, 2017
“It was the most remarkable thing to see,” Simmons said. “These people who don’t even know each other and they trust each other that much to get them to safety.”
They started with the children. By the time they got to Ursrey the woman was struggling to keep her head above water. She blacked out, but woke up safe on the sand. However, back in the water, her mother was suffering a massive heart attack. She was transported to the hospital along with one other swimmer and both are thankfully now in stable condition. Ursrey's nephew broke his hand, but everyone made it out alive.
"I owe my life and my family's life to them," Ursrey told the Herald. "Without them, we wouldn't be here."
To the Ursreys, who had moved to Florida from Georgia only a month ago, the incident has given them a healthy fear of the ocean, and respect.
"She’ll take you with her,” Ursrey told The Washington Post. “She almost took nine of us that day.”
To Simmons, the incident was a testament to the greater good that humans are capable of when they work together.
"To see people from different races and genders come into action to help TOTAL strangers is absolutely amazing to see!!" she wrote in a Facebook post describing the harrowing situation. "People who didn't even know each other went HAND IN HAND IN A LINE, into the water to try and reach them. Pause and just IMAGINE that."
It's a stunning image, the kind that, if we allow ourselves to be inspired by it, just might save more lives.