A human chain saves lives at the beach this summer. An inspirational true story outlining the power of the human spirit.
You must have heard the details; it was well covered on the national news this month. I would like to share the story with you and also the ‘one-on-one’ chat that I had with Jessica. She is a remarkable person that used pure determination, along with her husband and the power of a connected human chain to save a family.
This summer, at Panama City Beach in Florida, Jessica and Derek Simmons saw people looking off shore, gazing and pointing into the far off sea.
At first the couple thought that the crowd had spotted a shark in the water. Then they realized it was not a shark sighting but actually people struggling. Six members of a single family – four adults and two young boys – and four other swimmers had been swept away by a riptide. There was no lifeguard on duty. People on the beach had no rescue equipment, only boogie boards, surf boards and their arms and legs. “Form a human chain!” they started shouting.
By then, eight people were caught up in the strong current, for nearly twenty minutes, fighting for their lives.
On shore, the human chain began forming, first with just five volunteers, then fifteen, then dozens more as the rescue mission grew more desperate. With no thought to the danger, Jessica and Derek Simmons swam past the eighty or so human links, some who couldn’t swim, and headed straight for the drowning family. Jessica and her husband started with the children, passing little Noah and Stephen back along the human chain, which passed them all the way to the beach. By the time Jessica Simmons reached the 34-year-old mother she could hardly keep her head above water. “I’m going to die this way,” the mom thought… “My family is going to die this way. I just can’t do it.” The drowning mom recalls Jessica Simmons coaxing her to carry on and giving her the courage to fight for her life. The mom blacked out and woke up on the sand to the sound of more screams in the water.
These screams were from the Grandma of the family clan, Barbara Franz, who was still struggling in the water. She had gone in trying to save her grandchildren. She was having a heart attack. Jessica Simmons recalled that the Grandma’s eyes were rolling back during the water rescue. At one point, the 67-year-old woman told her family “to just let her go” and save themselves. Instead, the grandmother’s son-in-law and nephew held her body up as they struggled to keep their own heads above water.
In the face of all of this adversity, that’s when the chain got the biggest! They linked up wrists, legs, arms. An amazingly powerful human chain that would not let human life go fortified by determination grew in power. Due to a miracle, human bonds and grace…nearly an hour after they first started drowning, just as the sun prepared to set, all ten of the stranded swimmers were safely back on shore. They were saved. The entire beach fell apart with emotion and gratitude with echoes of cheers, applause and good wishes along the shore.
Inspired by this news account, I contacted Jessica, sharing with her that I have written a children’s book. I wanted to know more about her, so that I could share her story with Huckleberry Hill friends and family. Also, I confided, I am finishing recent edits on my latest book, set in both Sicily and California; with a focus on the ocean, mermaids and Sicilian traditional foods. For many reasons, her story connected with me and I wanted to get to know her and share her story.
I also told Jessica that I would love for her and her husband to visit the white sand beaches of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California or San-Vito-lo-Capo, Sicily. I bet we could find mermaids together!
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Here is my wonderful and joyful chat with Jessica! I hope her positive energy inspires you as it did me. She is a breath of fresh air, as invigorating and refreshing as a Pacific coast breeze.
Q: My daughter Bella Sophia surfs, she has been caught is undertows off Del Monte Beach. What advice do you have or what have you learned about ocean safety that you would like to share?
Jessica’s Answer: OMGOSH, I would love to learn how to surf. I think that is amazing! I have learned that if you ever get into the ocean, and it doesn’t matter how shallow YOU THINK you’re going to stay in, ALWAYS bring something to float on rather it be a float, a boogie board or even a surf board. I learned since that if you get caught in a riptide and can’t fight it anymore, then just ride it out, take your time and float. You will eventually get out of it and then you can swim parallel once you are out of it. You should have some kind of floatation device with you so you can keep your head a float. YOU WILL make it out as long as you have something to lean on.
Q: What motivated you to “spring to action” that day?
Jessica’s Answer: I have always been the type to spring into action. When I host weddings, baby showers and different events for my friends, I am always the one who takes the lead and people follow. I think that day people needed a leader to tell them what they needed to do. It just is in my nature. It’s not something I feel like I NEED to do, it just happens and then I realize at the end that I just lead everyone on what to do. Ha-ha! My mother tells me all the time that I am a natural leader and apparently that day, it showed. Hearing the screams of those people is something I could not live with myself to hear had I not done something.
Q: Looking back at the moment, in reflection, what touches you emotionally about that day?
Jessica’s Answer: Looking back at that day, I think about the seventy plus people who was handing each other’s hand. The fact that they didn’t even know each other, but had NO problem holding each other’s hand was awesome to see. Complete strangers with different ethics coming together as a whole to complete a dangerous task for people they didn’t even know. It was remarkable and emotional all at the same time.
Q: Have you ever visited California?
Jessica’s Answer: No! But I would LOVE to go to the beaches there! California is on my bucket list. I would love to go to the beach and watch people surf and kite board! I am currently looking up lessons to go kite boarding!!! I would love to take lessons and see if I can do it before I pay the equipment. I also want to see the HOLLYWOOD sign!
Q: Do you still enjoy going to the beach? How have you healed after this experience?
Jessica’s Answer: Yes! I have been to the beach in Ft. Lauderdale and Miami for the last 2 weeks. I actually have not been to our beach since it has happened. I am hoping after my trip to Alabama to see my family, I will be able to go back to that place. Where it happened, is where I spend MOST of my days at. When everything happened, we congratulated everyone, patted each other on the back and went back to what we were doing. It was like, “Ok. We did what we were supposed to do…now back to life”. It was amazing. And that is exactly what I did. We went back to our spot and ate our cooked fried snapper. Hahaha!
Q:What are your goals for the future?
Jessica’s Answer: I am currently a student for the University of Alabama. I have been doing online classes with them for about three years. I am getting my Bachelor’s in Business Management. I have eight more classes and I should be done! I would love to open my own business and start an animal daycare and hotel. I have a LOVE for animals and have notice dogs and cats have daycares, but what about reptiles, chickens, horses and hamsters? I want to create a daycare for all animals, so when someone needs to go on vacation and needs someone to keep their birds, we will be there to help. I have solo many ideas that is goes even farther then that!
Q: My children’s book series, Huckleberry Hill Adventures encourages children to go outside and explore the outdoors and nature. What were your favorite childhood memories of being outside?
Jessica’s Answer: I am very outdoorsy person. My whole life I have been in nature. My parents took us on camping trips every summer for weeks at a time. We even woke up to our tent flooding with water in the middle of the night by a huge rain storm that hit us. I remember watching our tent run away in the waters! LOL. Now that I am older and married, I never realize how many parents never went camping! My husband has never been until I took him! LOL I would say that camping was one of my favorites and if it wasn’t that, it would be finding adventures with my neighbors on our bikes. We one time came up on a huge mountain (we are talking 40 ft. tall) mud hill and spent the day sliding down it!! We had to throw those clothes away!
Everyday American’s Doing the Right Thing:
Jessica and her husband are angels on Earth. So many good deeds happening around them. The couple lives in Panama City, FL by the Air Force Tyndall Base. They moved last year in a neighborhood that is full of veterans and active full duty military. Houses go up for sale and rent regularly because of people who leave for the army. So it leaves an ‘emptiness’ living in a neighborhood that you rarely get to know because everyone is always moving away. Jessica and her husband are not in any type of military duty, so they feel like the ‘odd balls’ (Lots of giggles from Jessica). Anyways, they have two dogs named Beegee and Haus. Beegee is a mix that we tell people is half coyote and half wolf. (Just joking!) They really have no idea what she is because they found her in the woods. Haus is a pitbull and is another rescue from a horrible home. She also has three bearded dragons! Jessica’s mom is named Sydney, her father named Rango and they have a three legged ‘baby’ name Tripod! (Get it!?). Her husband and her have no children so these are the children! “They bring us so much joy!”
Jessica is 29 years old and has been in Hueytown and McCalla, Alabama her whole life till she moved to Panama City in June 2016. Jessica is currently going to University of Alabama for a Bachelor’s Degree and she is really close to getting her degree finished. She only has eight classes left. Jessica also works at Hilton Worldwide doing reservations to make a little extra cash. Her wonderful husband travels 85% of the year…school and work keeps her busy while he is gone. When Jessica graduated high school, she went to Lawson State in Bessemer Alabama for her Associates Degree in Applied Science, where she became an engineer on cars. When she graduated in 2009, she was a ASE certified mechanic. Jessica worked at Jim Burke and Tuscaloosa Chevrolet for thirteen years as a certified mechanic. She has a huge passion for cars (another reason the visit our area and go to the Laguna Secca Raceway) and loves working on them! It had been a hobby for Jessica for a long time, so why not make it a career? When Jessica moved down to Panama City, she decided to do more traveling with her husband and go for something she had wanted for a long time and that was a Business Management degree.
It would not be a Huckleberry Hill Feature without discussing food. Jessica loves a salad with protein. Better that that she adores pizza! A favorite is a ‘meatball pizza’. So I say, in honor of Jessica and her terrific husband Derek next time you make meatballs, make pizza too…in honor of the power of the human spirit and the power of a human chain. Follow your heart, live your dreams…Huckleberry Hugs, Maxine