PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Strangers on a Florida beach formed an 80-person human chain to help rescue members of a family who had been caught in a riptide and pulled too far from shore, but emergency workers say they also helped bring distressed people to safety.
Panama City Beach Deputy Fire Rescue Chief Larry Couch said that when his rescuers arrived, two people were on the beach after being in distress in the water. They refused treatment. At the same time, people in the water were forming a human chain to help six others who were struggling in the water. Fire department rescuers later brought two of those people to shore, Couch said.
Roberta Ursrey and her family were enjoying the day at M.B. Miller County Pier on the Gulf of Mexico when she noticed her sons were missing, the Panama City News Herald reported . She went looking for them and soon heard them screaming from the water that they were trapped by the current.
Others warned her not to go in the water, but Ursrey, her mother and five other family members swam to the boys' aid, but then found themselves also trapped in 15-feet of water.
Jessica Simmons, who had stopped with her husband at the beach for dinner, had just found a discarded boogie board when she saw people pointing at the water. She thought they were pointing at a shark, but when she realized people were drowning, she jumped on the board and began swimming toward Ursrey's family.
"These people are not drowning today," Simmons remembers telling herself. "It's not happening. We are going to get them out."
Meanwhile, Simmons' husband and some other men started a human chain to bring everyone back to shore. Some couldn't swim, so stayed in shallow water. Eventually, about 80 people were involved and got to within feet of the family.
Simmons, her husband and some others then towed the family to the chain, which passed them back to shore.
The deputy fire chief, Couch, said his rescuers brought two people in, towing one with the boogie board.
"The human chain, that was a great thing to happen," he said. "But a lot of statements, that police and fire rescue didn't do anything, that was totally false."
Ursrey's mother suffered a major heart attack during the ordeal and remains hospitalized. A nephew suffered a broken hand. Otherwise, everyone was safe.
"I am so grateful," Ursrey said. "These people were God's angels that were in the right place at the right time. I owe my life and my family's life to them. Without them, we wouldn't be here."
The swimmers were in the water an hour and a half after the county and city's lifeguards had left the area. Will Spivey, who is in charge of lifeguards for Panama City Beach, says the Gulf of Mexico looks placid — but looks can be deceiving.
"The sand up here is really fine. That's why our beaches are so pretty. It moves pretty quickly, too. But sandbars can shift," he said. "What happens is, people either over estimate their abilities or they underestimate the power of that open water environment."
While Spivey said he's glad the human chain helped, he's seen other scenarios where amateur rescuers have gotten into trouble themselves while trying to rescue people from rip currents and other difficult conditions. There was a yellow flag on the beach that particular day, he said, which means there were medium hazards and moderate surf conditions.
Simmons said she was impressed by everyone working together to rescue the family.
"It's so cool to see how we have our own lives and we're constantly at a fast pace, but when somebody needs help, everybody drops everything and helps," Simmons told the newspaper. "That was really inspiring to see that we still have that.
"With everything going on in the world, we still have humanity," she added.
An earlier version of this report incorrectly cited the Northwest Florida Daily News instead of the Panama City News Herald.
Information from: The (Panama City, Fla.) News Herald, http://www.newsherald.com