PANAMA CITY BEACH — 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.
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.' "
Unwilling to watch them drown, Ursrey and her family swam out to them, but the rip current was much stronger than they realized and despite her best efforts to escape, they were trapped as well. All in all, Ursrey said there were nine people stuck in about 15 feet of water, including her mother, who suffered a massive heart attack during the ordeal and very nearly died.
"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.' "
It might have been, had Jessica Simmons and her husband not decided on a last minute, beach-side dinner that afternoon. Or if she hadn't stopped to pick up leftover trash and happened to grab a discarded boogie board, intending to keep it for when her godchildren visited. But sitting on the sandbar after a quick dip in the water, Simmons realized everyone on the beach was facing a different direction and pointing.
"I automatically thought they had seen a shark," Simmons said. "I ran back to shore and my husband ran over to them. … That's when I knew someone was drowning."
Simmons isn't the type of person to stand by and watch someone in distress. Back in Alabama, where she's from, Simmons said she once walked 11 miles after a tornado to help people clean up their mess and get their lives back together. So when she saw Ursrey's family in trouble, she grabbed the boogie board and started toward them while her husband and a few other men started a human chain to bring the swimmers back to shore.
"These people are not drowning today," Simmons remembered telling herself. "It's not happening. We're going to get them out."
As Simmons paddled, the human chain grew, with 80 people stretching over 100 yards out to the distressed swimmers. Some of them couldn't swim, Simmons said, but wanted to help and stayed in the shallows. 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.
"I got to the end, and I know I'm a really good swimmer," Simmons said. "I practically lived in a pool. I knew I could get out there and get to them."
What Simmons found at the end of the human chain, she said, was shocking. Ursrey's mother was exhausted, her eyes were rolling back and Simmons remembered her "drinking so much water" and "telling us to just let her go and save us." Everyone was exhausted, the waves knocking them under. One by one, starting with the children, Simmons and her husband, along with a few other rescuers, towed the swimmers to the human chain, who then pulled them all 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."
Ursrey doesn't remember being rescued, just waking up on shore after she passed out. Her mother, she said, ended up coding in the ambulance, but was was brought back to life and is still in the hospital. Her nephew had a broken hand, but otherwise everyone is recuperating after their ordeal.
"I am so grateful," Ursrey said. "These people were God's angels that were in the right place at the right time. I owe my life and my family's life to them. Without them, we wouldn't be here."
Looking back, Simmons said it wasn't so much about what she did to help rescue the family, but everyone dropping what they were doing to help.
"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," she added.