An evening on the beach took a dramatic turn when a riptide put a family at risk.
Posted in , Jul 25, 2019
My husband sprang the idea on me at the last minute that Saturday evening, July 8, 2017. I didn’t even have a chance to go into mission mode. That’s our name for how I like to tackle things, from big projects like moving to everyday stuff like grocery shopping. I go into mission mode—I assess the situation, figure out what needs to be done, then do it.
“Let’s have dinner on the beach,” Derek said.
He must have seen me hesitate, because he added, “A farewell picnic.”
It was his family’s last day with us before they went home to Alabama—his mom and dad, three teenage nieces and a teenage boyfriend. Derek and I don’t have kids, and we loved playing parents for several weeks every summer. I worked at a hotel and cleaned houses on the side while taking business management classes online at the University of Alabama. I hoped to run a business someday centered around helping animals. Derek managed a team that set up voting stations for federal, state and local elections. A busy life. But making memories with the kids was our priority. We all love the water, and we’d taken them to water parks, the beach and kayaking.
“A picnic on the beach sounds perfect,” I said. “We can watch the sunset.”
We packed up the food, loaded everyone into cars and drove to Miller County Pier in Panama City Beach. The coastline here is known for its two sandbars—the first about 20 feet from shore, the second 30 feet out. The trough between the sandbars makes a nice lane to swim in on calm days, but when it’s choppy, look out. The waves can shift the sandbars and create rip currents.
It was after 6 p.m. The lifeguards had left for the day. A yellow flag by the lifeguard tower meant moderate waves and currents. Pretty typical for the Gulf of Mexico. I wasn’t too concerned. I’d swum in pools and lakes and rivers since I was a toddler. I was a strong swimmer. I could keep the kids safe. We went out to the first sandbar, where the water was knee-deep, so they could look for sand dollars.
I looked up from the hunt and noticed a bunch of people gathered on the beach. They were all pointing toward the water. “Let’s get out,” I said. “Must be a shark.”
“I’ll see what’s going on,” Derek said. He jogged over to the crowd as the kids and I made our way to shore.
Derek waved me over. “There are people drowning!”
Not a shark. A riptide!
There were maybe 30 people or so in the water. I couldn’t tell which ones were in trouble.
A police officer at the water’s edge was telling everyone it was too dangerous to go after those swimmers. Emergency lifeguards had been called.
I asked two girls to show me who was drowning. “Over there,” one said, pointing past the sandbars. If you’re caught in a riptide, you’re supposed to swim parallel to the shore. These folks weren’t moving. They were trapped.
A man waded out to mid-waist. “It’s too rough,” he called back. “The tide’s trying to suck me in. I can’t reach them.”
We couldn’t just let these people drown! I knew what suddenly losing someone you love could do to a person. I’d lost my first husband five years earlier. Matt had been in great shape, never sick, until a bad case of what we were told was bronchitis. It turned out to be sepsis. Matt just stopped breathing. I looked down at his lifeless body in the hospital bed in a state of shock.
Coming home to an empty house afterward nearly destroyed me. I was only 23. I’d expected to grow old with Matt.
What sustained me was our community. People reached out to me every single day. One of Matt’s coworkers phoned me every morning to make sure I got out of bed. His two best friends took turns calling after work to ask about my day. My girlfriends came over to clean my house without being asked. The first Christmas without Matt, our friend Derek—now my husband—came over and put up a beautiful tree. I felt so loved. God put these people in my path. Their human chain saved me from drowning in my grief.
A human chain, I thought. That’s what we need.
It was as if Derek read my mind. “Don’t just stand there!” he shouted to the crowd. “Let’s make a chain!”
People plunged into the water and linked arms. Five people. Ten. Derek directed them. He was used to managing teams. Our nieces and the boyfriend jumped in to help. We put them in the shallows, with taller adults farther out. Some folks didn’t even know how to swim. But they put themselves in the line, relying on the ones beside them to keep them afloat. All these people who didn’t know each other were working together.
The chain grew to 40 people, 50, 60, more. But still not enough to reach the drowning swimmers. I grabbed two boogie boards off the beach and swam to the last man in line. He was in water up to his neck.
“Can you bring those folks to me?” he asked. “Are you a good swimmer?” I could see them now, 20 feet away. Two little boys. Their mom, dad, grandmother. A young man. A young woman. A couple. Nine people total.
“I’m really good,” I said. “We’ll get them out.” I went into mission mode. I kicked hard, cutting through the churning water. The mom was on her back, trying desperately to hold up her sons. “Save my boys!” she gasped. The boys were crying. I gave them the boogie boards and pushed them to the end of the human chain. They got passed along to shore superfast.
I took one of the boards and went for their mom next. “I’m so tired,” she said.
“You can do it,” I said to her. “Just keep kicking.”
The last man in line grabbed her and shot her down the chain to safety.
I got the boogie board back, swam to the grandmother. She was in bad shape. The young man, the first woman’s nephew, was holding her head above water. I tried to help her onto the boogie board. Once, twice. Six times. She kept falling off. Each time, the nephew dove down and brought her back up, but he was weakening. The grandmother’s eyes rolled back in her head.
I was not about to let this lady die!
A surfer had paddled out, and the couple were draped on his board. “Can we put this woman on there?” I asked. The couple slid off the board and held on to the sides. But we couldn’t get the grandmother up there. That’s when Derek swam up beside me. He threw the grandmother onto the surfboard. The nephew curled his arm around her to keep her there. Then we waited for a wave to push the board to the end of the chain.
I swam back out for the last two people: the boys’ father and the young woman. She’d floated out of the riptide. Two emergency lifeguards had arrived. They reached her and used the human chain to send her to shore.
I headed for the father. He was a big man, twice my size. Too big to tow.
“I can touch the ground now,” he said. He walked slowly to shore.
I went back to Derek and the kids. The human chain unraveled. An ambulance arrived. EMTs took the grandmother, who’d had a heart attack, and the young woman, who’d taken in too much water, to the hospital. But both would be all right.
Derek’s last-minute picnic didn’t give me time to go into mission mode. That’s because God had a bigger mission in mind for everyone on the beach that day. Together we saved nine people from drowning. Just as it had for me six years earlier, a human chain made all the difference.
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