Rip currents swept away a Florida family. Then beachgoers formed a human chain.
When Jessica and Derek Simmons first saw the beachgoers pausing to stare toward the water, the young couple just assumed someone had spotted a shark.
It was Saturday evening, after all, peak summer season in Panama City Beach for overheated Florida tourists to cross paths with curious marine life. Then they noticed flashing lights by the boardwalk, a police truck on the sand and nearly a dozen bobbing heads about 100 yards beyond the beach, crying desperately for help.
Six members of a single family — four adults and two young boys — and four other swimmers had been swept away by powerful and deceptive rip currents churning below the water’s surface.
“These people are not drowning today,” Jessica Simmons thought, she told the Panama City News Herald. “It’s not happening. We’re going to get them out.”
She was a strong swimmer and fearless in the face of adversity. But others had tried to reach them and each previous rescue attempt had only stranded more people.
There was no lifeguard on duty, and law enforcement on the scene had opted to wait for a rescue boat. People on the beach had no rescue equipment, only boogie boards, surf boards and their arms and legs.
“Form a human chain!” they started shouting.
Roberta Ursrey was among those caught in the treacherous rip currents. From 100 yards away in the Gulf of Mexico, between crashing waves and gulps of salt water, she heard the shouting, she told The Washington Post.
By then, Ursrey and the other eight people stranded with her had already been in the water for nearly 20 minutes, fighting for their lives. Ursrey and the others had ventured into the water to rescue her two sons, Noah, 11, and Stephen, 8, who had gotten separated from their family while chasing waves on their boogie boards.
Tabatha Monroe and her wife, Brittany, in Panama City for a birthday getaway, were the first two to hear the boys’ panicked cries for help. The couple had just gone into the water when they saw the boys far from shore. They swam over and grabbed hold of their boogie boards.
But when they tried towing them back to shore, the women couldn’t break free of the current.
They tried to swim straight and they tried to swim sideways, Tabatha Monroe told The Washington Post, but nothing worked. After about 10 minutes, a few young men with a surfboard snagged Brittany and towed her back to shore, just as the number of people who needed rescuing grew.
Soon Ursrey, who had heard her boys’ cries from the beach, was also caught in the rip currents, followed in close succession by her 27-year-old nephew, 67-year-old mother and 31-year-old husband. Another unidentified couple struggled to tread water nearby.
“The tide knocked every bit of energy out of us,” Ursrey said.
So much water went up Tabatha Monroe’s nose that she was sure she would drown, she told The Post.
“I was exhausted,” she said.
On shore, the human chain began forming, first with just five volunteers, then 15, then dozens more as the rescue mission grew more desperate.
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