Courtesy Rosalind BecktonEven now, almost a year after their stunning act of group heroism, the dozens of people who risked their lives to save two boys from drowning in Panama City Beach, Florida, marvel at the memory. The tattooed home builder who had nearly drowned a year earlier. An Asian couple who didn’t speak English. The grandmother who had recently survived two heart attacks and who would, before the boys were finally relayed to safety, suffer a third. One after another, they leaped into the roiling water, linking enough hands and arms to stretch nearly 100 yards into a riptide that threatened to swallow anyone who came near.
“There were people there that didn’t know how to swim whatsoever, and they were up to their necks in water, holding on to other people,” says Bryan Ursrey, the father of the two boys.
The rescuers call it the Human Chain. The physical “chain” was indeed what rescued the boys, who were passed along from one person to the next until they were back to the safety of the beach. But it was the deeply “human” aspect of the rescuers’ strategy that made it so remarkable.
“They could have gone on about their day and not cared,” says Bryan. “But they found good in their hearts to help do what needed to be done. This right here kind of renews your faith in humanity.”
The story begins on July 8, 2017, on Florida’s hard-work-and-cold-beer Panhandle. Members of the Ursrey family, eight in total, are enjoying an evening together at the beach. As the sun sinks lower on the horizon, the two boys—Noah, 11, and Stephen, 8—take their boogie boards and stray into the waves without the grown-ups noticing. When the boys are about 70 yards from shore, they realize that the ocean has tugged them out to sea. After trying and failing to paddle back in, they start waving and screaming for help. But the lifeguards have clocked out for the evening. There’s a yellow flag flying, indicating caution, but most of the regulars can scarcely remember seeing any other color.
The boys have been struggling for several minutes when Brittany and Tabatha Monroe, a married couple from Georgia, stroll by. They don’t see the boys at first, but they hear them. “If I hear ‘Help,’ I’m going to try to help if I can,” Tabatha says.
They leap into the water and easily reach the brothers, who are still in fairly shallow water, less than six feet deep. The women reassure the frightened boys and grab their boogie boards—then discover that they, too, are now in a world of trouble. They can’t get back to shore and can barely and only occasionally tap the sandy bottom with their feet.
After a few minutes, it’s clear to the women that they are all trapped in a rip current. Rips move perpendicularly to the shoreline and can quickly exhaust swimmers who try to fight them. A powerful one can sweep even the strongest swimmer out to sea; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that 92 people drowned in rip currents in 2017. Safety experts warn against fighting the current and advise that anyone trapped in a rip should swim parallel to shore until finally exiting its deadly belt. The women try to do just that, but no matter which way they try to swim, they find they’re still stuck.
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(These other drowning rescue stories will make you rethink how you swim.)
Brittany, who has eight-year-old Stephen, is petite and struggling to keep her head above water. Panicking, she releases the boy and makes a frantic push for safety. By now, some teenagers have heard the commotion. One of the teens, a boy who is tall enough to keep his feet on the ocean floor, dashes into the water, grabs Brittany, and hauls her back to shore.
Meanwhile, Tabatha can feel herself being pulled farther out. She is treading water, already exhausted and beginning to despair now that she is trying to save both boys alone. The waves keep plunging her underwater as the boys bob along next to her.
Onshore, Brittany is terrified and hysterical. A man heading back to his car stops. “What’s wrong?” asks Shaun Jernigan.
“My wife is drowning!” Brittany says. Shaun looks out and sees the trio of heads popping through the waves. A hulking house framer from Georgia, he immediately strides into the water despite an unusually powerful reason not to. A year ago, Shaun was caught in a rip current in this very spot and narrowly escaped drowning. He is uncomfortably familiar with that feeling of the water lapping about his nose and ears as the vacuum-cleaner current pulls the sand out from under his feet. Still, he wades out as deep as he dares, up to about his chin, until he knows he is at the brink of no return.
A gaping 15 feet still lies between him and Tabatha and the boys. She is screaming for help, and he almost can’t bear to abandon them, but he knows that if he continues, he’ll become another victim. He turns around.
Courtesy Rosalind Beckton
“Please don’t leave me,” Tabatha pleads to the hulking stranger. “I’m fixing to die!”
“I’m not leaving,” Shaun answers. “I’ll be right back.”
It’s about this time that Roberta Ursrey, the boys’ mother, returns from the bathroom and looks around for her children. She is shocked to see them floating with their boards much farther out than they’re allowed to go. She hollers at them to come ashore, and they scream through their tears that they’re stuck. A bolt of panic fires in her. She flings her phone onto the sand and sprints into the water. She fights the waves to get to her screaming sons and the stranger who is trying to save them.
“I’m going to help you,” Roberta says. “I’m going to get you all out of this.” She seizes the boys’ boards and starts kicking for shore, but she quickly discovers the truth of their predicament. It is nearly impossible to make headway in any direction.
By now, other people have begun to notice the stranded group, though the gravity of the situation isn’t entirely clear. A few yards away, an Asian couple are treading water and trying to inflate a child’s ring-shaped flotation device. They likely came out to help the boys, but when Roberta tries to talk to them, she runs into a language barrier. Just beyond them is a young man on a surfboard attempting to catch waves. Tabatha and Roberta scream to him for help—they know that if they can all cling to the surfboard, they’ll survive until a rescue boat comes. But the surfer laughs and paddles away.
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Roberta sees her grown nephew, Justin Hayward, surface nearer to the shore. He’d been exploring the shallows underwater, oblivious to what was going on farther out. He can see now that his aunt and little cousins are in trouble. Even though he broke his hand playing football on this same beach just a week before, he swims hard for the boys. “Don’t come out here!” Roberta says. “We’re gonna drown.”
He swims to them anyway. “Give me one of the boys,” he tells his aunt. Roberta can’t bring herself to relinquish either of her children. Justin finally persuades her to give him 11-year-old Noah and sets out to tow him on his boogie board toward shore. But Justin, too, comes to understand that he is no match for the force of the water.
Fortunately, more help is on the way. Shaun Jernigan, the home builder who almost drowned the year before, has told his daughter to call 911 and returned to the water’s edge. He is frantically searching for a rope or other lifesaving equipment when he sees a man running toward the water. He tries to stop him. “Don’t go out there!” Shaun says. “We’re trying to get them out!” But Bryan Ursrey charges in anyway. “That’s my family out there!” he says.
Shaun spots two police officers and rushes up to them. The officers, he says later, not only refuse to help but also attempt to stop him and any other would-be rescuers from entering the water. (Deputy Police Chief Chad Lindsey later says in a televised interview that the officers thought it was too risky to let anyone swim out to the boys.) Shaun ignores them and instead flags down a few other beachgoers, and together they start to wade into the water.
To keep from losing their footing in the current, they begin holding on to one another, and that gives them an idea: Why not form a human chain extending from the beach all the way out to the struggling swimmers? As long as the farthest link stays connected to those whose feet are still firmly planted in the sand, they’ll be safe.
Of course, that will require more links—probably dozens of them. Shaun spots Derek and Jessica Simmons, a local married couple in their 20s, on the beach, and they start rallying the folks who have been watching the drama with passive concern. “Don’t just stand there!” Derek yells. “There’s got to be some hope left for humanity in some of you!”
Then the most astonishing thing happens: One by one, link by link, total strangers wade into the waves and grasp one another by the wrists, determined that no one will die on this beach today.
Jessica Simmons is petite, but she’s an unusually strong swimmer. As her husband, Derek, continues to recruit rescuers, she grabs two boogie boards and swims out past the still-forming line to see how she can help. When she reaches the end of the chain, she sees that it is still 20 to 30 feet shy of the group of swimmers. A tall man at the end of the chain says to her, “Do you think you could get them close enough to where we could grab them?”
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“Yeah, I can do that,” Jessica says. When she turns around, she sees her husband swimming just behind her. “I couldn’t leave you out here,” Derek says.
Derek grabs Noah’s board from Justin, who has been trying desperately to get his young cousin over to the human chain, in part by plunging beneath the waves to “walk” over the ocean floor while holding the boogie board over his head.
“I was telling the boy, ‘Everything is going to be all right. Just stay on your board,’” Derek says. At one point, Noah falls off, and Justin grabs him by his britches and puts him back up on the board. “As soon as I got him to the end of the chain where Shaun was, it was like lightning. Shaun started passing him back, and you just heard the chain: ‘Pull! Pull!’ All the way back to the beach. Everybody on the beach pulling them in.” It takes only a minute or so for the chain to ferry him to the beach.
Jessica has been helping little Stephen make his way over to the chain, which is now some 70 volunteers strong, and when he reaches it, he, too, is whisked ashore.
Next comes Roberta, who is so exhausted that she blacks out just as Jessica helps her connect with the chain. The people pass along Roberta’s limp body, one link to the next, and deposit her on the beach. It will be five minutes before she wakes up. As it turns out, that was a blessing, considering what’s happening with her mother out in the ocean.
Barbara Franz, 69, saw her two grandsons struggling and swam into the danger zone right after Justin—despite the fact that she’d had two heart attacks in the past two months. Within minutes, the water overwhelmed her. She is still out in the water when Roberta and the boys are conveyed to shore. In fact, she doesn’t realize they have been rescued, and she sinks into hopelessness as her body continues to fail her.
Justin tries desperately to float his grandmother along on a boogie board, but she keeps flopping off, her limbs like spaghetti. Over and over, the waves hit them, she goes under, and Justin brings her back up, being careful of his broken hand. Derek swims up to assist. By now, Barbara has become delirious and incoherent. “She’s telling me, ‘Just let me go. Save yourselves,’” he says.
Apparently realizing the gravity of the situation, the surfer has returned and given his board to the Asian couple. “I just remember saying, ‘God, give me the strength to get this lady up on that surfboard, or we’re both gonna die today,’” Derek says. “And it was just like a burst of energy I had. I picked her up, and I just chucked her in the middle of this couple that is hanging on to the board. And that’s where she stayed until we got probably ten feet from the chain, and then there was another boogie board. We ended up getting her on that.”
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Somehow Justin swims to the end of the chain to add a link and ensure that his grandmother is taken ashore. When the man next to him grabs his injured hand, Justin hears the bones rebreaking. The man recoils, but Justin says, “It’s OK.”
Moments later, they shuttle the Asian couple down the chain, and Justin and a stranger carry Barbara onto the beach. She appears lifeless but a moment later begins vomiting seawater. She later says that she felt her dead husband, Carl, appealing to her while she was unconscious and that she believes that she herself was dead for part of the ordeal. (Barbara spent a few days in the hospital and months recovering from what turned out to be a third heart attack.)
Courtesy Rosalind Beckton
Now everyone is ashore except for Tabatha, who flounders about 20 feet from the end of the chain, and the boys’ dad, Bryan. Tabatha is beyond exhausted, beyond despairing.
“Hold on, baby girl,” Bryan tells her. “I got you.” Again and again he digs the tips of his toes into the sand and tosses her forward—and again and again, the sea undoes his feeble progress.
Shaun and the others in the human chain see what’s happening, and the shout goes out to move the rescue operation down the beach, closer to where Tabatha has drifted. There is a great scrambling in the surf, and a moment later the chain reforms, aligned to rescue Tabatha.
A fresh swimmer splashes up to her. “Come on—grab my arm,” he says. Tabatha reaches for him, and he tugs her the last few feet over to the chain, which zips her back to the beach. In the meantime, Bryan finds his footing and wades in on his own steam. Everyone, miraculously, has made it.
The vast majority of the rescuers from that day remain anonymous: the teen who helped Brittany ashore, the lanky young man who swam Tabatha in, the Asian couple. Each deserves to be celebrated—but won’t be. This humbles the Ursreys almost beyond words.
“It didn’t matter what color you were, what age you were,” Bryan says now. “Everybody stopped what they were doing. They got off their phones, tablets, whatever, and helped get my family out of the water.”
“Those people on that beach that day were angels on earth,” says Roberta. “Whether it’s the first person or the last person in that chain, they were our heroes. Every link was just as important as the other one.”
Next, read this story about a young girl who saved a toddler from drowning in a septic tank.