ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Over the weekend on a Florida beach, 80 strangers formed a human chain to rescue a family caught in a riptide. Roberta Ursrey was in Panama City with her family when she realized that she had lost sight of her 8- and 11-year-old sons. She told her story to WBRC in Birmingham, Ala.
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ROBERTA URSREY: And I went running down the beach telling them to come in, and all of a sudden all I heard was screaming and crying. And I went diving in, and there was people like, we can't go no further. We can't go no further. And I'm like, I don't care. I'm going.
SHAPIRO: She was not the only one who swam out to help them. Nine people got caught in the tide, including Ursrey's elderly mother. There were no lifeguards. Jessica Simmons was also there that day. She saw those heads bobbing in the water about 300 feet from shore. And she joins us now on Skype to describe what happened next. Thanks for being here.
JESSICA SIMMONS: Thank you. I appreciate it a lot.
SHAPIRO: Tell us how the idea came about to form a human chain of the water, complete strangers holding onto each other.
SIMMONS: Well, everybody was gathered already around everybody because they were watching it. And I was like, we need to do something because they were yelling at us to throw a rope or throw something to them and nobody had anything. You know, you don't go to the beach bringing a rope. So my husband was with some guys and they were like, well, we can't find a rope, but we can make one. And so they made a human chain with all the people that were gathered on the beach.
SHAPIRO: And so you followed that chain out the hundred yards or so to where the family was drowning. What was it like when you finally reached them?
SIMMONS: Well, I was passing the human chain and the guy on the end, he said, are you a good swimmer? And I said, yes, I am. He said, can you get them closer to us so we can grab them? And I said, yeah, I can do it. I had a boogie board, so I knew if I could get them on the boogie board and get them to them that would give them something to float to the human chain with. When I got there it was the most horrifying thing I have ever encountered, seeing their faces, 'cause they were really restless. The grandmother was - her eyes were rolling in the back of her head. And the only thing they had out there was a surfboard.
SHAPIRO: I understand the grandmother might have been having a heart attack at the time.
SIMMONS: Yes. At the time she was having a heart attack. She was so tired that when I went to give her the boogie board to try and put it underneath her she just kept falling out into the water. I had to put it back under her. She fell out - off of it again. I put it back under her again and she'd just fall back and go underneath the water. So my last resort was the surfboard. I was like, we have got to get her on this or she's going to drown.
SHAPIRO: What was it like when you realized that everyone had made it back to the beach alive, that this had actually worked?
SIMMONS: It was remarkable because I couldn't believe that all these people come together to help them. Watching them work together, too - these strangers that don't know each other were working together. One person would say push and all of them would do it in a chant. They were all yelling, push, push, push. And you could hear it. It was echoing.
SHAPIRO: And these were people who had never met before that day. When this rescue was done did everyone just sort of split up and go their own ways? Did it feel like something had changed?
SIMMONS: No. We all came up on shore. And when we got up to almost ankle-deep water everybody started cheering, you know, clapping, cheering. You know, we saved these lives. And I remember getting pats on the back. It was like thank you, thank you. And then everybody separated. It was like they were destined to do it and they knew they had to do it, and then they went back to their own lives. Each person went back to their own family.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Wow.
SIMMONS: It's hard to explain, but it was so remarkable to see how people jump to somebody's rescue and then just go about like it was nothing.
SHAPIRO: Jessica Simmons, thank you so much for telling us your story.
SIMMONS: Yes, I do appreciate it. I'm glad you had me on the show.
SHAPIRO: Jessica Simmons was one of a group of 80 strangers who helped rescue a drowning family over the weekend.
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