Never underestimate the kindness of strangers. A family is safe and sound today after a group of complete strangers came together to form an 80-person-long life line.
It was like any other beautiful day at Panama City Beach, and Roberta Ursrey was enjoying the sun and surf with her husband, mother, sons, and nephews. She wasn’t far from the M.B. Miller County Pier when she noticed her sons had drifted much further from the shore than she had thought. Roberta was concerned as she started to walk toward the water, she wasn’t frightened until they started screaming.
“They were screaming and crying that they were stuck,” Roberta told the Panama City News Herald. “People were saying, ‘Don’t go out there.’ ”
Like any decent mother would, Roberta refused to simply watch her children drown. She and her family began swimming out to the terrified boys, but the unseen rip current was more powerful than they could have imagined. Soon nine people in Roberta’s family were trapped in 15 foot deep water. The terrible ordeal was too much for Roberta’s mother to bear and she suffered a heart attack in the middle of the ocean.
“I honestly thought I was going to lose my family that day,” Ursrey said. “It was like, ‘Oh God, this is how I’m going.’”
While the Ursrey family fought for their lives, Jessica Simmons and her husband were on their way for a beachside dinner. Along the way Jessica noticed a discarded boogie board that had become beached on a sand bar poking above the waves just a few yards off shore. She walked out to retrieve the board for her godchildren when she looked back and saw almost everyone on the beach looking into the ocean and pointing.
“I automatically thought they had seen a shark,” Simmons told the Herald. “I ran back to shore and my husband ran over to them. … That’s when I knew someone was drowning.”
Unable to simply watch a disaster and do nothing, Simmons grabbed the boogie board and started swimming toward the family. Her husband started collecting other men on the beach and ordered them to form a human chain reaching out into the water.
Now with a clear course of action and someone to lead, more and more strangers joined the chain lead by Simmons. “These people are not drowning today,” she told herself. “It’s not happening. We’re going to get them out.”
The weaker swimmers stayed near the shore and dug their feet into the sand to keep a strong hold on the people beside them. Stronger swimmers swam out to the far end of the 100 yard chain with the water splashing just below their chins. Simmons and her husband began ferrying the family members to the chain, one by one starting with the children.
The elderly grandmother who had suffered a heart attack told Simmons to “just let her go,” but Simmons refused. The woman’s eyes rolled back and Simmons remembered she was swallowing sea water as the heroes swam her back to the chain. Roberta’s mother was taken into an awaiting ambulance where her heart stopped completely, but the EMTs were able to revive her. Roberta passed out from the ordeal and has no memory of her rescue before waking up on the shore. Her mother remains in the hospital and her family has started a crowdfunding page to help support her medical costs.
One of the young boys suffered a broken arm, but was otherwise unharmed. Fortunately there were no fatalities and the whole family is recuperating together.
The incredible moment was captured in a photo by an eyewitness who was standing on a nearby pier as it happened. The witness shared it with Simmons who wrote on Facebook, “This [picture] was from the county pier that ran out in the water! In the middle of it, you can see just heads bobbing right above the water as they hold hand to hand to rescue these people.”
Simmons refuses to accept the title of “hero” insisting that it was all 80 people together who saved the drowning 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,” she said. “With everything going on in the world, we still have humanity.”
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