Molly Gregory and her friends never expected their vacation to Florida would become a fight for their lives.
The group of Portland locals were visiting Panama City Beach earlier this month to celebrate a friend's marriage, and the waters were closed to swimmers under a double red flag advisory in the wake of Tropical Storm Barry.
"We'd been looking for seashells all week to make keepsake necklaces for the girls, and we were barely knee-deep," Gregory recalled. "A really strong wave came in, and you either fall back or go underwater, and so we (Gregory and Brooklyn Caudill) just fell in. I remember turning around at that point and we couldn't touch, and realized how far we were back. We both tried to swim and see if we could go forward, and I knew we had to start screaming for help."
Gregory estimated that the waves carried them 300-350 feet from the shoreline.
"When the waves started taking us under and I started getting short of breath, I didn't know if we were going to make it back," she said. "I was having to constantly lift myself back up. With every wave that went over our heads and took us under, I had to mentally and physically fight to pull myself back up. When I was resting, I verbally said out loud, 'Lord, please forgive me of my sins,' because I thought that was it."
The two were out in the water for approximately 10 minutes before being reached by lifeguards, who arrived on the scene after another beachgoer heard the calls for help.
Gregory and Caudill's friends on the shore were alerted to the situation around the same time.
"(Ann-Haili Blewett) and I feel asleep, and all of a sudden this guy came and woke us up," Anna Blaire Bandy said. "He was like, 'I think those are your friends out there. We've already called 911 and beach patrol.' "
Bandy and Blewett rushed to water's edge, but found themselves unable to do anything to help.
"Their heads looked like little Barbie heads -- that's how far out they were," Bandy said. "We could hear them screaming at us for help, and they'd go underwater with every wave. We were being yelled at to get out of the water ... standing on the shore with our ankles in the water. The thought was, 'I'm helpless, I can't do anything but stand here and watch my friends drown.' "
From amongst the waves, Gregory noticed dozens of people gathering on the shore, including police vehicles, but knew she would have to keep fighting the waves for anyone to reach her.
"It was exhausting, but I feel like I'm a mentally strong person," she said. "I played basketball for nine years, and those workouts are so hard, but they keep telling you to push and don't give up. The wave that held me under the longest, I opened my eyes under the water and my family came to mind. I was under there for a solid 10 seconds, and I fought even harder. I was weak, but at the same time I had such an adrenaline rush that I was able to keep going."
Once the lifeguards reached Gregory and Caudill, they were able to find the current and bring them back to shore within three to five minutes.
"The lifeguard threw me a buoy, and I had a death grip on that thing," Gregory said. "I remember looking over my shoulder and seeing the look of terror on Brook's face ... at that point, the lifeguard went to her and I could see they were making their way back to shore, but I was still out there getting pulled back. I panicked and thought they were leaving me, and the last bit of my adrenaline kicked in."
Gregory was able to stand up after her feet hit a sandbar, and used that momentum to reach the shore.
"I was like, it's now or never," she said. "I ran with all I had, fell a couple of times and I remember them throwing out another buoy. It pulled me for a minute, it slipped and I fell, but I stood back up and a few people were able to help at that point."
Although Gregory and Caudill were brought to safety, a rescue attempt for another beachgoer proved unsuccesful.
"After we got everyone calmed down, we were sitting in our chairs trying to get ourselves together before we left," Bandy said. "The beach patrol pulled an older gentleman out of the water. He didn't make it, and his family said he had been missing for about 40 minutes. His surfboard came back, but he didn't. They literally pulled his body beside us on the beach, and that just sealed how serious the situation was."
Since that incident, Gregory and the others have worked to raise awareness of beach warning systems, noting that weather conditions can be deceptive.
"From that experience, I learned to take the double red flag seriously," Gregory said. "It happened in seconds, and could have happened to anyone. There were many other people knee-deep, but it still could have been prevented had we not underestimated how powerful the ocean is. I felt like it was the perfect opportunity to say something and make a statement about how serious (those warnings) are."
Gregory said the weather forecasts called for rain every day of the trip, and that police cars were patrolling the beach throughout the weekend.
"The first couple of days it was storming off and on, so we'd go to the beach and then go back inside," she said. "(July 13) was the perfect day, so we were at the beach all day long. We weren't even going to go on (July 14) but it was such a perfect day we didn't want to miss it. From the first day when it was a yellow flag (which means swimmers should exercise extreme caution), you could definitely tell a difference in how high the tide was and how rough the waves were crashing in."
Bandy said the weather on that day was beautiful, and that people had been standing ankle or knee-deep in the water throughout the week.
"About 2:30 or 3 a.m., I was driving back and everyone else was asleep," she said. "I remember sitting in the car, looking at everyone and being so thankful they were in the back seat with me on the way one. I want people to know that double red flags means no water period, because it can happen so fast ... and it could happen to anyone."