Form a human chain: What a beach rescue teaches us about spur-of-the-moment leadership

How would you motivate 80 strangers to work together in the spur of the moment?

That’s the question I asked when I learned about the human chain that formed at Panama City Beach in July to rescue 10 people who had been caught helplessly in a rip current. So I reached out to Derek and Jessica Simmons, two of the key players in the rescue, to find out.

The Simmonses moved to Panama City, Florida, just over a year ago. Derek travels the nation working for a company that provides election-related services to local governments. Jessica is a certified mechanic who enjoys working on cars. Neither is a self-proclaimed leader, but they consider themselves “doers.”

“I’m an average guy, and my wife is an average woman,” Derek said. “But we have enough love and compassion in our hearts that if we can change the outcome of something negative to a positive, that’s what we’re going to do.”

They hadn’t planned to go to the beach on July 11, but they decided last-minute to fry some fish and take it to the beach to eat with their nieces and nephew who were visiting. While Jessica and Derek were swimming, they noticed a crowd staring and pointing in the same direction. At first they thought someone had spotted a shark, but when a beach patrol vehicle arrived, they knew something was going on. They made their way to shore.

Two brothers, Noah and Stephen, had become caught in a rip current. Eight people, including their mother and grandmother, had ventured out to save them and had become caught as well. They were treading water hopelessly. Lifeguards had long since clocked out and gone home. No one had a rope.

That was painful for Jessica. Every time she hears of people whipping out smartphones to record a tragedy, rather than help, she feels sick inside. She is a strong swimmer, and she wanted to help. “We’re not going to sit there and watch someone drown,” she said.

Mingling with the crowd, Derek and Jessica heard one man mention that he had tried to reach and help the struggling swimmers, but there was no way he could rescue them by himself.

That sparked an idea for Derek.

He thought about how ants can cross puddles by linking their bodies to form a bridge. “I figured we could be like a bunch of ants if we put aside our differences, and we could just form a unit,” Derek told me. “Just like ants build a bridge to get themselves across a body of water that they can’t cross otherwise, we could get out there and we could get to them.

“I didn’t know that we could save those 10 lives,” he said. “What I knew was we could save at least one if we could get far enough to them.”

Derek and his nieces started shouting, “Form a human chain!”

A handful of people standing near them caught hold of the idea and began linking their arms and wading out into the water. Derek and his nieces worked to recruit other people to the effort, but many people gravitated towards the chain. “They saw a movement fixing to start happening,” he said. “They just started flying into the water.”

News reports about the incident say about 80 people formed themselves into a chain reaching out toward the swimmers. The chain did not quite reach them, so Derek and Jessica swam past the end of the chain, helped the swimmers one-by-one onto boogie boards and surf boards, and towed them back to the chain. The people in the chain pulled each rescued swimmer closer to shore until people wading in shallow water towed each one to the beach.

Derek and Jessica were amazed at the way people got involved. Some of the first people to join the chain couldn’t even swim, but they wanted to help however they could. Not everyone involved spoke the same language. But they joined hands, locked arms, locked legs, and trusted each other to hold on when the waves crashed in and the currents became strong.

“There’s something remarkable about it when people who can’t even speak the same language are just falling into line, into place, just off of a stranger saying, ‘Let’s start a chain,’” Derek said.

I asked Derek and Jessica what they think we can learn from this experience about leading and motivating. They both believed God had a hand in having the right people in the right place at the right time. Jessica said it came down to people needing some direction. “They needed somebody there to say, ‘Let’s spring into action,’” she said.

Everyone on that beach shared a desire: to see those ten swimmers safely back on shore. When Derek offered the human chain idea, it connected with that desire. His idea inspired people because it showed them how they could fulfill that wish to see a successful rescue. People trusted other strangers in the chain because they all shared this common goal.

Derek divides the world into “doers” and “watchers.” Life gives us tests in which we can determine which category we will be a part of.

I think he’s onto something. Each of us has the opportunity to be a “right person in the right place at the right time.” We can be “doers.” We might find ourselves surrounded by other people who share a goal, or we might have to go find them. Either way, we can show them how to work together and reach that goal.

Sometimes they just need us to say, “Take action.”