A normal day at the beach turned into a heroic moment Saturday when a group of strangers formed a human chain that stretched into the ocean to rescue swimmers stuck in a rip current.
Derek Simmons, 26, and his wife, Jessica Simmons, 29, came up with the idea to start the chain when they saw a group of around nine swimmers struggling to stay afloat off the coast of Panama City Beach, Florida.
“The only thing that popped into my mind was if you’ve ever watched ants, when one of their babies is in trouble and can’t move, they start making a chain in order to pass them down the line to get them to safety,” Derek Simmons, of Panama City, told ABC News. “That’s the only thing I was thinking of, if we’re arm to arm, we can get them.”
The swimmers, who reportedly included two young boys and a group of adults who swam out to rescue them, were caught in the water around 6:30 p.m., after the beach’s lifeguards had left for the day, according to Simmons.
One of the swimmers, Brittany Monroe, 25, said she and her wife, Tabatha Monroe, 35, were out on their boogie boards and saw the two boys, who were also in the water with boogie boards, in distress.
"We grabbed the kids and tried to start swimming in and it just kept pulling us back," Brittany Monroe said of the current. "The water was really strong [on Saturday] but where we were it wasn’t pulling us. When we got to where the kids were, that's when we realized we were stuck."
Brittany Monroe said she and her wife, who were visiting from Georgia, were soon joined by the elementary-age boys' mother, Roberta Ursrey, grandmother and uncle, who also swam out to help. Brittany Monroe was able to swim far enough in to reach three teenage boys, who brought her to the shore.
"I couldn’t get back in the water. My lungs were full of water and I couldn’t breathe," she said. "Everybody that would come by me, I would holler at them that my wife was out there, kids were out there, that they had to join the chain."
The chain started with a group of around five people.
“A lot of people were like, ‘There’s no way we’re getting in the water, we’re going to get swept out,’ but I guess they just swallowed the pride pill and they just got in,” Simmons said of watching the chain of strangers grow. “It was pretty amazing stuff for it to be different races, different genders, different ages; everybody got together to help.”
Simmons, who described the ocean conditions as normal that day, and his wife were at the end of the chain. They would swim out to the distressed swimmers and pull them back to the chain one by one. The chain was then anchored by people on shore who would pull them back to safety.
“[Jessica and I] are no Olympic swimmers, not even Coast Guard swimmers but just two average people who spend a lot of time in the water,” Simmons said. “Everybody that was involved is a hero in my book.”
The chain eventually grew to around 40 people, according to a police report obtained by ABC News. The report estimates the swimmers were stuck nearly 70 yards away from the shoreline.
"I've never seen anything like it in my entire life," said Ursrey, who was rescued along with her family members. "Without them I wouldn't have my family."
Rosalind Beckton, 38, was at the beach with her 12-year-old son and caught the rescue effort on camera.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Beckton said of the nearly one-hour rescue. “I didn’t know what to do but people were moving fast and they were just putting their heads together and making it happen all at once.”
Beckton said police were on the scene but were waiting for a boat to arrive to rescue the swimmers. The strangers formed the human chain on their own, she said.
“I call them heroes. They were so brave to get out there and risk their lives to save others,” said Beckton, who offered her CPR services on shore. “We were rejoicing when they all got out, people were giving out hugs.”
The Panama City Beach Police Department did not immediately reply to ABC News' request for comment.
All the swimmers were pulled safely to shore, while two, including Brittany Monroe, were taken to a local hospital for further treatment, according to the police report. Brittany Monroe, who was treated for water in her lungs, is now home recovering.
Simmons recalled the swimmers, some of whom were members of the same family, as being “completely exhausted.”
“They were trying their best to swim and everything but once you’ve been out there in a rip current for that long, it’s like running a race all day long, it’s just tiring,” he said.
Rip currents can travel as fast as 8 feet per second, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The agency advises swimmers caught in a current to stay calm and not try to swim directly to shore.
Simmons said he and his wife were just happy to be in the right place at the right time, and to see the good in people.
“It was humbling to know that we still live in a world that still has some humanity left," he said. "My gratitude is for the people who were risking their lives as being part of the chain."