PANAMA CITY BEACH, FL (WSFA) - It was a group effort, but one Alabama woman and her husband helped start a human chain to save an entire family caught in a riptide just off the coast of Panama City Beach, Florida.
According to a Skype interview with WBRC on Monday, Jessica Simmons of Hueytown and her husband, Derek, were on the beach near the M.B. Miller County Pier Saturday afternoon when they heard a commotion and people pointing towards the water.
What people on the beach were pointing at were two boys who were caught in a riptide while trying to come in from swimming. Their mother, Roberta Ursrey, along with her husband, mother, nephews and two daughters heard their cries for help, and immediately tried to swim out to them.
Onlookers tried to warn the family not to swim into the tide for fear of being trapped themselves, but Ursrey ignored them.
"I don't care," she recalled saying. "I'm going."
When she reached her sons, Ursrey discovered that there were already three other people that had tried to rescue her sons but that had also become stuck in the current.
What was a rescue attempt soon became an even bigger problem, as her sons, their three would-be rescuers, her mother, nephew, husband and herself all became trapped in about 15 feet of water.
All in all, nine people were stuck in the tide.
That was when Simmons and her husband, two strangers to Ursrey's family, caught a glimpse of what was happening and realized something was wrong.
"At first, you'd think it was a shark. You know, everyone's pointing," Derek said. "So we kept walking, and when we got over there, there was a guy in the water, saying, 'man, they're all stuck out there, the riptide's pulled them out, I tried to go out there; if I go any farther, I'm going to get stuck.'"
It was at that point that the couple leaped into action.
They instructed nearby people to start a chain, figuring that if they could connect enough people, they could reach the family and pull them to safety.
"It started with five people," Jessica said. "Then it started with 15 people, and then it got bigger and bigger and people were just coming in. It was amazing."
According to Derek, when the chain reached the family caught in the riptide, they found them exhausted from trying to stay afloat. Using a surfboard and a boogie board from some nearby beach goers, Derek and Jessica were able to keep the family members afloat until they could get back to shore.
According to Ursrey, her mother was rushed to the ICU with an aortic aneurism in her stomach from fighting the current, and is currently in Bay Medical Center Sacred Heart in Panama City.
"Without them, we wouldn't be here, because emergency personnel stood on the beach," Ursrey said. "They wouldn't even link up and help. It was the human chain that pulled us out of that water. God's good grace and them is the reason we're here today."
Ursrey has since set up a GoFundMe account to help raise money for her mother's medical expenses. In 22 hours, the account raised $350 towards its goal of $10,000.