When Jessica Simmons and her family were visiting Panama City Beach, Florida, they decided to have dinner on the beach. The family from Hueytown, Alabama, soon noticed a commotion, with police lights blaring on the boardwalk and people frantically pointing at the water.
At first, she thought there was a shark. Then Simmons realized someone had been caught in the riptide and was drowning.
Quickly, she and her husband and niece shouted to people to form a human chain. At that point, she found out that it wasn't one person, but nine people who had been caught in the strong current.
"These people are not drowning today," Simmons said to herself, according to the Panama City News Herald. "It's not happening. We're going to get them out."
Simmons says she has always been a great swimmer, having been raised around water — a pool and a lake — even before she could walk; she knew she was in a good position to help. She and her husband swam past the 50 or more people in the human chain to reach the drowning victims.
"To see people from different races and genders come into action to help TOTAL strangers is absolutely amazing to see!!" she posted on Facebook. "People who didn't even know each other went HAND IN HAND IN A LINE, into the water to try and reach them. Pause and just IMAGINE that."
'I'm going to die this way'
When they swam out to the drowning people, they found two boys who had been caught in the riptide, along with their mother, Roberta Ursrey, who had rushed out to try to rescue them. She was eventually joined by her husband, mother, nephew and several others, who had also tried to help. Instead, they were all stranded and treading water, trying desperately to stay afloat.
"The tide knocked every bit of energy out of us," Ursrey told the Washington Post. She thought to herself, "I'm going to die this way. My family is going to die this way. I just can't do it."
But Simmons, her husband and a few other rescuers began pulling them one by one toward the human chain, where they were passed person to person toward the shore. The human chain had grown to probably 80 people, Simmons said, with some people standing up to their necks in water and others standing in the shallows, waiting to take the people to shore.
Ursrey's mother, Barbara Franz, was in the worst condition with her head dropping underwater, almost incoherently telling her rescuers to "Let me go, just let me die and save yourself."
But the rescuers and the human chain got everyone safely to shore. Franz was taken to the hospital, where she remains hospitalized. Her daughter posted on a GoFundMe page that her mom had a massive heart attack in the water, but is now recuperating.
Reflecting on the whole event, Simmons tells the News Herald that the amazing part was watching everyone working together 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."