At least 80 beachgoers form human chain to rescue stranded swimmers in Florida

Dozens of beachgoers at Panama City Beach form a human chain to rescue nine stranded swimmers swept away by a strong riptide on Saturday (July 8).
Dozens of beachgoers at Panama City Beach form a human chain to rescue nine stranded swimmers swept away by a strong riptide on Saturday (July 8). PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST/ROBERTA URSREY

FLORIDA - Dozens of beachgoers formed a human chain at the Panama City beach on Saturday (July 8) to rescue a group of swimmers who had been pulled out to sea by strong tides.

The chain stretched for as long as 90m, local media reported.

Nine people were passed along the chain to safety, including six members from the same family.

Among the family were two small boys aged eight and 11, and a grandmother who had suffered a heart attack.

Alabama native Derek Simmons, 26, who organised the chain with his wife Jessica, told The Guardian: "It was a wave of humanity that brings some things back into focus, that maybe we haven't lost all hope in this world."

Mr Simmons said he was having a picnic with his family on the beach when he noticed people pointing towards the water.

He thought at first that there was a shark, but found out that a group of people were in danger of drowning.

"The waves were so heavy and big and strong," eyewitness Rosalind Beckton told CNN.

Ms Beckton, 38, a regular visitor to the beach, noted the absence of lifeguards at that time.

Police and paramedics arrived at the scene, with one officer jumping into the water to mount a rescue. But he soon aborted his attempt.

As the crowd stood watching and police waited for a boat, Mr Simmons and his wife swung into action, urging bystanders to help create a chain.

Mr Simmons and his wife were able to swim further out with their bodyboards and reach the group. They first rescued the two boys, Stephen and Noah Ursrey.

The pair were the first to get stranded, followed by other family members - including their 34-year-old mother Roberta Ursrey - and an unidentified couple who tried to save them but were overpowered by the current.

The most difficult to save was Ms Ursrey's 67-year-old mother, who had suffered a heart attack in the water and was described by Mr Simmons as "lifeless".

"She died on us for a few minutes in the water," Ms Ursrey wrote in a post appealing for help with medical bills, adding that her mother was in stable condition in the intensive care unit of the Gulf Coast regional medical centre.

She expressed her gratitude towards her rescuers in an interview: "I am so grateful... 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."