A riptide swept away a Florida family. Then beachgoers formed a human chain. – Washington Post


Dozens of beachgoers at Panama City Beach, Fla., form a human chain to rescue nine stranded swimmers swept away by a strong riptide on Saturday. (Courtesy of Roberta Ursrey)

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 a powerful and deceptive riptide 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 riptide. 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.

Stephen Ursrey, 8, and his 11-year-old brother Noah. (Courtesy of Roberta Ursrey)

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.

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