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'God's angels': Human chain of almost 80 strangers save a drowning family

Dozens of strangers at Panama City Beach in Florida came together to form a human chain stretching 100 yards offshore to save a family caught in a rip current.
/ Source: TODAY

Caught in a rip current with three other family members after trying to bring her two young sons to safety, Roberta Ursrey couldn't help but think the worst as she struggled to keep her head above water in the Gulf of Mexico.

"The water, when it starts going around, there's nothing that can save you,'' she told Kerry Sanders on TODAY Wednesday.

The lifeguards were off duty at Panama City Beach in Florida on Saturday evening when Ursrey's sons, Noah, 11, and Stephen, 8, started calling for help after they got caught in a rip current while on their boogie boards.

Ursrey, 34, swam out to try and save them along with her nephew, mother and husband. All of them were soon sucked out by the strong current along with two other swimmers who tried to help.

"It was hard for me because we (were) far from the shore,'' Stephen said on TODAY. "At least I had my boogie board."

As law enforcement waited for a rescue boat, a group of nearly 80 strangers on the beach sprung into action by forming a human chain stretching about 100 yards into the Gulf of Mexico to save the group of nine people caught in the rip current. It started with a few swimmers and grew into a massive effort as more and more beachgoers ran into the water to help.

Jessica Simmons was at the beach with her husband, Derek, when they swam out to the end of the chain of nearly 50 people at the time to help Ursrey and her family.

"To see people from different races and genders come into action to help TOTAL strangers is absolutely amazing to see!!" Simmons wrote 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."

In the midst of their fight against the current, Ursrey's mother, Barbara Franz, 67, suffered a heart attack.

"She looked right at Derek and told him, 'Let me go, just let me die and save yourself,''' Simmons wrote on Facebook. "My heart sank. I was not going to let this lady die."

Ursrey's husband and nephew kept Franz's body above water until she was rescued. Franz was taken by ambulance to a hospital and had to be shocked back to life but is now recovering, Ursrey wrote on a GoFundMe page set up to help with Franz's medical expenses.

Ursrey passed out during the rescue and doesn't remember anything until regaining consciousness on the beach, but she is eternally grateful for the actions of strangers on a day that could've ended in tragedy.

"It's something I never want to experience again, that's for sure,'' she told Sanders. "As a mama I'm supposed to be able to protect them and do everything, and I couldn't do it that day."

After nearly an hour, people on the beach erupted in applause when everyone was safely brought to shore as the sun was setting.

"I am so grateful," Ursrey told the Panama City News Herald. "These people were God’s angels that were in the right place at the right time. I owe my life and my family’s life to them. Without them we wouldn’t be here."

The rescue has inspired Stephen to pay it forward one day.

"Well since they helped me, when I grow up and if they can't swim, I'm gonna have to,'' he said on TODAY.

Follow writer Scott Stump on Twitter.