Roberta Ursrey was enjoying a day at Panama City Beach with her family when she realized she didn’t see her sons, Noah, 11, and Stephen, 8. After looking around frantically, Ursrey spotted them far out to water, screaming that they were trapped by the current. She, her mother, nephew, and husband all struck out in the water to try to save the boys, but they also found themselves trapped in the riptide. Three others also tried to help them family, but they also found themselves stuck in the water.
Jessica and Derek Simmons arrived twenty minutes later to see a crowd of people pointing at the water and yelling. Initially, they assumed that there was a shark in the water, but then they noticed the police truck parked on the sand and the nine heads bobbing in and out of the water, crying desperately for help.
Jessica told The Panama City News Herald she thought, “These people are not drowning today."
She picked up a discarded boogie board and entered the water. Simmons says she’s a strong swimmer—she’s spent most of her life in the water—but it was still a dangerous decision. Others had tried to the help the family and only ended up prisoners of the water too. There was also no lifeguard on duty, and the police had decided to wait for a rescue boat.
But Simmons wasn’t going to wait. “Form a human chain!” shouted Jessica’s husband, Derek. Eighty people joined to form a human chain, and Jessica and her husband swam past the chain to the family.
When they reached the family, the Simmons went directly for the boys, passing them back along the human chain and to safety on the beach. By the time Jessica reached, Ursrey the 34-year-old mother was pretty sure they were going to die in the water, and she could barely keep her head above the water. “The tide knocked every bit of energy out of us,” she says. She remembers Simmons encouraging her to preserve, but then she blacked out.
Luckily, the human chain was able to get Ursrey back to the shore, but when she awoke, people were screaming again. Her mother, 67-year-old Barbara Franz, who was still in the water, was having a heart attack. The Washington Post reports that at one point, she told the rescuers “to just let her go” and save themselves.
“My heart sank,” says Simmons in a Facebook post. “I was not going to let this lady die. She was so limp, the waves were pushing her around like a rag doll putting her son [in law] and Derek underwater to keep her head up.
“That’s when the chain got the biggest,” says Ursrey. “They linked up wrists, legs, arms. If they were there, they were helping.”
An hour after the struggle began—just as the sun began to set— everyone was safely on shore.
“It was beachgoers and the grace of God’s will,” says Ursrey with relief. “That’s why we’re here today.”
Franz is still in the hospital after suffering a massive heart attack and an aortic aneurysm in her stomach. However, she has been taken off a ventilator, and doctors say she’s in stable condition.
Ursrey says the rescue has proved to her that are good people in the world, and Jessica Simmons agrees with her.
“What really got me was how a entire BEACH jumped into action to save these people,” writes Simmons. “People who COULDNT even swim [were] part of that human chain. They wanted to help that bad. I just wish I could share a picture or video of it. Man it was life changing to witness it.”