Compassion and courage were all it took to rescue a family caught in a deadly rip current recently in Panama City Beach, Florida. Nothing else was available, and it turns out, those qualities were more than enough.


Instead of the fun swim they had planned, the Ursrey family, comprised of Roberta, Albert, and their children, ages 8, 11 and 18, plus a nephew and Roberta’s mother, became trapped in a powerful riptide. Roberta first realized her young sons were in trouble when she got to shore ahead of them and they begin screaming they couldn’t follow. The mom hurried to help her kids and was quickly followed by other family members. The current snaring the youngsters was inescapably fierce, and soon all were in danger of drowning, while the eight-year-old daughter watched helplessly on the sand.


Another couple enjoying the ocean after an unplanned beachside supper heard the screams and realized what was happening. Jessica Simmons picked up a discarded boogie board and dashed into the water toward the family stranded nearly 100 yards from shore. Her husband Derek marshalled bystanders to grab arms to form a human rope across the waves. One by one, people joined the arms-length chain. Those who couldn’t swim stayed near shore while others went to the front of the line in water up to their necks and then deeper. Eventually nearly 80 people were linked in the string of hands.


Derek was at the farthest point of the line, and it was still a few feet short of the drowning swimmers. With the help of the boogie board, Jessica and Derek shuttled the struggling family to the outstretched hands of the human chain. Starting with the young boys, then Roberta’s mom who was suffering a heart attack from the ordeal, every person was transported along the chain to safety.


In media interviews since their July 8th rescue, Roberta has called the chain-forming beachgoers her “angels,” especially the Simmons who spearheaded the effort. Angels, indeed. No lifeguards were on duty at the time, and law enforcement personnel were waiting for rescue boats.


Sometimes life sucks you under and you can’t escape. The swirling waters break over your head. There is no foothold and exhaustion whispers you’ll never survive. People you might expect to help aren’t there or won’t venture into the churning deep.


And sometimes, an angel stretches out a hand. Perhaps regular people pause when they hear your cry and realize that a hand is what you need most, especially when other assistance is lacking.  Maybe they join forces with others – folks probably different from themselves and strangers at that – and together they form an unexpected chain of compassion.


It takes compassion to care about someone else’s distress and courage to attempt aid. It takes courage to follow a bold example into waters over your head. It maybe takes more courage to call out for help, to grasp the outstretched hand of a stranger, and to allow yourself to be passed along the chain of compassionate humanity.


Either way, you are not alone. Angels surround those who both need or lend a hand.


Marnie C. Ferree