“I’m going to die. My family is going to die this way. I just can’t do it.”

– Roberta Ursrey, Mother

For all that is wrong in the world, there are beautiful moments happening everywhere. Moments that capture the human heart and spirit.

Like when 80 people form a “human chain” to save a drowning family.

Panama City Beach, Florida is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States. Beautiful beaches, clear water, and plenty of things to do. People rave about the place.

On July 8th, 2017, the beaches, water, and hot spots were not the main topics of discussion. People had something much more worthwhile to discuss.

80 Strangers Risk Their Lives To Save A Family From Drowning

“We’re going to get them out.”

Jessica and Derek Simmons, while strolling along the beach, saw a bunch of people staring out into the water. At first, they thought it was a shark – not at all an uncommon scenario. Upon evaluating the scene, the married couple slowly came to the realization that it was no shark. Flashing sirens, a police truck, and about a dozen bobbing heads screaming for help.

A family and five others were crying out in desperation. A powerful current had swept them away.

Jessica Simmons, an accomplished swimmer, told the Panama City News Herald, “These people are not drowning today. It’s not happening. We’re going to get them out.”

The problem was a riptide – powerful, channeled currents of water which extend from the shoreline outward. Rip currents are exceptionally dangerous, particularly if one is not a strong swimmer – and most young boys are not.

Stephen Ursrey, 8, and his 11-year old brother Noah were caught in this riptide, dragging the boys over 100 yards (the length of a football field) away from the shore. The boy’s mother, Roberta would get caught in the tide trying to help. Then her 27-year-old nephew, her 67-year-old mother, and her husband.

This riptide was bad. So bad that swimmers trying to help were being pulled in one after another. Meanwhile, the struggling family, between gulping salt water and gasping for air, felt utterly helpless.

“The tide knocked every bit of energy out of us,” said Mrs. Ursrey. The heroic folks trying to help weren’t faring much better. “I was exhausted,” said Tabatha Monroe, who thought she was going to drown.

With no lifeguard on duty, the situation wasn’t looking good. Law enforcement had decided to wait for a rescue boat, as there was no rescue equipment on the beach.

“Form a human chain!”

These four words would end up saving lives. At first, it was “just five volunteers, then 15, then dozens more” as it became apparent that no help was going to arrive in time. Around 80 people linked up hand-in-hand, some of whom could not swim at all.

With the chain formed, the Simmons’ – both outstanding swimmers – could make their way out to the stranded. That’s exactly what they did. “I got to the end, and I know I’m a really good swimmer,” Jessica Simmons said, “I practically lived in a pool. I knew I could get out there and get to them.”

Upon reaching the stranded, Jessica and Derek first helped the children. Young Stephen and Noah, touching each one of the approximately 80 strangers, were finally safe on shore. When Jessica Simmons reached Roberta Ursrey, she could barely keep her head above water.

Mrs. Ursrey then blacked out. “I blacked out because I couldn’t do it anymore,” she said. Her unconscious body was passed along the chain and tended to by people on-shore.

She would wake up to sand and screams. Her mother was having a heart attack. “Let me go, just let me die and save your self,” she said to Mr. Simmons. “I felt my heart sink,” his wife said. He and Ursrey’s nephew held her head above water long enough to reach the chain.

Over an hour later, as the sun was setting, everyone was safely back on land. The beach, now congested by onlookers, erupted in applause.

“It was beachgoers and the grace of God’s will,” Mrs. Ursrey said, “That’s why we’re here today.”


Brittany Monroe, the first to attempt a rescue, was transported to a nearby hospital for examination. She was treated for a panic attack and subsequently released. Barbara Franz suffered a “massive heart attack and an aortic aneurysm of the stomach,” but remained in stable condition following treatment.

The collective effort of over 80 people left an impression on Roberta Ursrey, “It actually showed me there are good people in this world.”

The heroics and exceptional swimming abilities of Jessica and Derek Simmons may have been the difference. Reportedly, the Simmons met up with the Ursreys following Barbara Franz’s recovery.

For her part, Jessica Simmons posted the following on Facebook:

“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 to reach them. Pause and just IMAGINE that.”

We’ll try, Jessica. Very well done.


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