Over 80 beachgoers formed a human chain stretching almost 100 metres into the Gulf of Mexico to rescue a group of swimmers in danger of drowning after they were caught in a powerful riptide last Saturday evening.
Nine people were passed along the human chain to safety at Florida’s Panama City beach, including a 67-year-old grandmother.
“It was a wave of humanity that brings some things back into focus, that maybe we haven’t lost all hope in this world,” said Derek Simmons, the Alabama native who quickly organised the chain and swam with his wife Jessica to rescue the stranded group.
After realising the group in the water was in trouble, Simmons quickly tried to get bystanders to form a human chain to reach them. At first people appeared reluctant, fearing they would be caught in the same riptide. But then more beachgoers raced to join the chain, allowing Simmons, 26, and his 29-year-old wife to swim further out on their body boards and reach the group.
Those in trouble included a young couple with two small boys and the grandmother, who were attempting to keep afloat but gulping in seawater. The couple first handed the children, Stephen Ursrey, 8, and his 11-year-old brother Noah, to the end of the chain, which by then had grown to about 80 people, and returned to help their mother Roberta, 34.
After about an hour in the water, he said, they were exhausted but able to rescue the last of the group.
The most difficult to help was the Ursrey family’s grandmother, who suffered a heart attack in the water and was “lifeless” according to Simmons.
In a posting accompanying a GoFundMe appeal for help with medical bills, Roberta Ursrey said her mother was in stable condition in the intensive care unit of the Gulf Coast regional medical centre.
“She died on us for a few minutes in the water,” Ursrey wrote. “My dad passed in December and when my mom came around she told us she had seen my daddy and it wasn’t her time yet. So she came back to us.”
She added that the rescued group contained two or three others who tried to help when they saw her sons in difficulties but then became stranded themselves.
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Simmons said he and his wife saw flashing lights on the boardwalk but there was no assistance from authorities during the rescue. “From what we were told, they were instructed to stay on the beach because there was a boat on the way, but we were in the water for almost an hour and there was no boat,” he said.
However, Panama City Deputy Fire Chief Larry 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.”
Simmons said those who had formed the chain were jubilant once they realised everybody was safe. “It was pretty amazing, all these different people, complete strangers who didn’t even know each other’s names, hugging and high-fiving.