Roberta Ursrey dug her heels into sugar sand, wading through choppy waters toward the panicked cries of her boys.
People screamed for her not to go. She did anyway, and was soon drowning too.
A dramatic rescue on a Panama City Beach last week saved three generations of Ursrey’s family and other swimmers as dozens of strangers joined hands in a human chain to drag people from the tugging grip of the Gulf of Mexico.
Lifeguards and first responders lauded the rescue, which occurred after hours with no guards on duty, but they cautioned that it could have just as easily gone awry with heroes turned victims in the unpredictable currents of the Emerald Coast.
“A lot of times you have Good Samaritans that go in, but then it can turn into multiple victims,” said Panama City Beach aquatic superintendent Will Spivey. “I’m just glad there wasn’t a break in the chain that would have put more people in danger.”
As the rescue went viral, beach officials repeated a familiar mantra — don’t swim without a lifeguard present – and lamented the disregard they said people in general pay to the yellow caution flag, which flew that day at Panama City Beach.
Yellow flags indicate a medium hazard with moderate surf or currents. Examples include shorebreak, a longshore current, rip current, baitfish, debris, a drop off and rocks. But those features aren’t as visibly alarming as the conditions that trigger red flags — high surf, pounding waves and blowing sand — or double red, which means the water is closed to swimming because of dangerous conditions.
“The yellow gives them a false sense of security,” said Panama City Beach Deputy Fire Rescue Chief Larry Couch. “The flag system is universal in Florida, but tourists don’t realize that this isn’t a lake or a pond, it’s the Gulf of Mexico and it’s a totally different animal.”
A rip current is being blamed for the near drownings on Panama City Beach — an area particularly vulnerable to shifting sandbars because of the fineness of the sand, Spivey said. Rip currents can form where water piling up along the shore finds easy access back to ocean. Gaps between sandbars offer a perfect funnel for the water to flow swiftly out to sea.
But other factors in that day’s emergency could have included a longshore current, uneven bottom, or an underestimation of the surf.
The National Weather Service in Tallahassee had cautioned that day that rip currents were possible with moderate southeasterly winds blowing at 10 mph, but there was not enough of a concern to issue an alert.
Ursrey, 34, said on a GoFundMe site that her family recently moved to Panama City from Georgia, but that they go to the beach often. The money collected is to pay for medical expenses incurred by her mother, who she said suffered a heart attack during the rescue.
As Ursrey went in to save her two sons, she said there were three people who had made a similar attempt, but got caught themselves in the current and were unable to get back to shore.
“Once my family saw what was going on, they swam over to try and help and ended up getting stuck in the rip tide as well, so that made a total of nine people stuck out in the rip tide,” Ursrey said on the site.
A Panama City Beach police report said the emergency call about the swimmers was made at about 6:50 p.m., nearly an hour after lifeguards would have left the beach.
Two people, Jessica and Derek Simmons, swam past the dozens of people linked arm and arm with a Boogie Board, according to The Washington Post, and started handing people along the chain.
“I may be 120 pounds, but I was a lot stronger than the people out there because at this point they were drowning,” Simmons said in a Facebook post. “Instead of thinking negative about the situation, I thought positive; I will get them out.”
The rescue effort took about an hour.
Although some social media posts complained that law enforcement didn’t help with the effort, Panama City Beach Deputy Fire Rescue Chief Larry Couch said his crew brought in at least two people.
“We did go in the water and saved the ladies that were transported to the hospital,” Couch said. “We don’t have any water rescue equipment and it is actually against our policy to go in the water, but we did.”
The Panama City Beach Police report does not mention officers going in the water, but says a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission boat was requested. The boat was called off when all of the people were out of the water.
Karen Parker, a spokeswoman for FWC, said she didn’t know how much time elapsed from when the boat was requested to when it was called off, but that it never made it to the scene.
“We have 14 million people come to our beach every year, but our population is only 14,000 and we can get overrun in no time,” Couch said. “People need to be aware of the flag system, swim where there are lifeguards on duty, and if you are not a good swimmer, don’t go out further than waist-deep.”
Between January 2000 and March 31, 2017, 286 deaths in Florida have been blamed on rip currents, including 22 in Palm Beach County, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s storm events database.
In June, the Walton County Sheriff’s Office began a project focused on water safety, including a video about a man who drowned in 2003 trying to save another man and his son from a rip current. The office produced a video about the drowning of Ken Brindley, and his daughter, Madeline Brindley, who was 6 years old at the time.
“We have our law enforcement and public safety officials risking their lives more and more due to these rescue calls—and so many are preventable because people are ignoring the flag system that I honestly have become very frustrated,” said Walton County Sheriff Michael A. Adkinson, Jr.
Robert Wagner, captain of Palm Beach County Ocean Rescue South District, said currents that run parallel to the beach are also a concern. People walk into the water, get swept down the beach, and are all of a sudden in over their head or in a rip current.
He agreed that yellow flags can give the wrong impression that it’s completely safe to go in the water.
“It’s not green, it’s not red. A tourist sees a perfect day of 2- to 3-foot waves and that’s what they want to play in,” Wagner said. “But it’s not calm, and a 2- to 3-foot wave can knock down a novice and throw them into a panic mentally.”
Surviving a rip current
• Don’t fight the current by trying to swim directly back to shore.
• Relax and float to conserve energy.
• Swim along the shoreline until you escape the current’s pull. When free from the pull of the current, swim at an angle away from the current toward the shore.
• Rip currents occur along coastlines with breaking waves, but can often appear as the calmest area of the surf with waves breaking to either side. They also occur near man-made structures, such as piers and jetties.
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration