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Beachgoers form human chain to save drowning family


Thipjang | Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 07/11/17

Quick action to reach people caught in rip current restores faith in humanity

You’re sitting on the beach, and all of a sudden someone out a little too far starts screaming for help. You watch as the lifeguard jumps down from his perch and pushes the rescue boat out against the breaking waves. You’re glad he’s there because otherwise you’d feel helpless. Lots of other people around you feel the same way.

But what if there’s no lifeguard around?

Who would have thought of this solution? Instead of everybody standing around thinking, “Wow, I could never risk that current and get out to save those people,” what if everyone started thinking corporately: “Together, we can get out there to save these folks.”

That’s what ended up happening on Panama City Beach in Florida over the weekend.

“It was supposed to just be a quick trip to the beach, but the Saturday afternoon diversion to the water almost ended in unspeakable tragedy for Roberta Ursrey and her family,” reported the Panama City News Herald:

Ursrey and her husband, mother, nephews and sons were enjoying the sun and yellow-flag conditions near the M.B. Miller County Pier. Ursrey herself had just left the water, but when she turned around to look for her sons, she noticed they were much farther from shore than she remembered. Concerned, she started walking down the beach. And then she heard their screams. “They were screaming and crying that they were stuck,” Ursrey recalled in an interview Monday. “People were saying, ‘Don’t go out there.’ ”

How could a mother not do something? Ursrey and her husband and other members of the family began trying to reach the kids, but it turned out that there was a rip current—and they got caught in it. Ursrey’s mother suffered a massive heart attack during the ordeal and nearly died.

It just so happened that a couple from Alabama were lingering on the beach after enjoying a meal. Jessica Simmons had just found a discarded boogie board and was going to keep it for her godchildren. She suddenly noticed everyone pointing out to sea and thought there might have been a shark sighting.

A Washington Post story reported that there was no lifeguard on duty, and law enforcement on the scene had opted to wait for a rescue boat. But beachgoers weren’t willing to wait.

“Form a human chain!” they started shouting.

Simmons, who is a strong swimmer, grabbed the boogie board and made her way out to the family.

These people are not drowning today,” she remembered telling herself. “It’s not happening. We’re going to get them out.”

Her husband, Derek, took part in the human chain, which grew to about 80 people, including some who knew they couldn’t swim but wanted to help and just stayed closer to shore. Others stood in water up to their necks, waiting for Simmons and her husband to cover the last few feet so they could pass the swimmers to shore.

“It was the most remarkable thing to see,” Simmons said. “These people who don’t even know each other and they trust each other that much to get them to safety.”

“These people were God’s angels that were in the right place at the right time,” Ursrey told the News Herald. “I owe my life and my family’s life to them. Without them, we wouldn’t be here.”

Simmons deflected any credit for her quick action and chose to lavish praise on the beachgoers who sprang into action.

“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,” Simmons said. “That was really inspiring to see that we still have that. With everything going on in the world, we still have humanity.”

A rip current, which this family seems to have been caught up in, is a strong current that can pull swimmers further away from shore. The natural reaction most people have is to try to swim against it. But this is very difficult, and oftentimes a less-experienced swimmer will tire and begin to panic. It is often advised that swimmers who get caught in rips swim parallel to shore to get out of the current. Most rip currents are only about 30 feet broad. Then, when clear of the strong current, it is relatively easy to swim back to shore.

Experts also advise that it is better to call a lifeguard or 911 rather than trying to rescue a person caught in a rip. Simmons apparently is a strong swimmer and she had a flotation device with her. Luckily, she had lots of other people who were willing to help too.

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