Debra Stevens, 47, drowned on August 24 when she accidentally drove into flood waters in Forth Smith, Arkansas while delivering newspapers at 4am
Horrific 911 audio has revealed a dispatcher lecturing a distraught woman who feared for her life after driving into flood waters and telling her to ‘shut up’ in the moments before she drowned.
Debra Stevens, 47, had been delivering newspapers in the early hours of August 24 in Fort Smith, Arkansas, when she accidentally drove into rising flood waters that swept her SUV off the road.
Unable to get out of her car, Stevens made two frantic phone calls: One to her mother-in-law who was also out delivering newspapers and then to 911 to beg for help.
Donna Reneau, who had resigned and was working her final shift as a Fort Smith Police Department dispatcher, was the person to answer Stevens’ call at 4.38am.
The audio of the 911 call was released on Thursday as the dispatcher and police department face criticism over the handling of Stevens’ terrified pleas for help in her final moments.
At one point during the 22 minute 911 call, the dispatcher could be heard saying: ‘Ms Debbie you’re going to need to shut up’ and ‘this will teach you next time don’t drive in the water’.
Stevens repeatedly told the dispatcher that she was going to die because the water was rising up past her chest and had engulfed the inside of her SUV.
She begged for the dispatcher to send help and said she was scared.
Donna Reneau (right), who had resigned and was working her final shift as a Fort Smith Police Department dispatcher, was the person to answer Stevens’ (left) call at 4.38am
Bodycam video released by the Fort Smith Police Department shows first responders searching for Stevens’ car when she called 911 to say she was trapped in flood waters
POLICE TIMELINE OF EVENTS IN DEBRA STEVENS’ DROWNING
4.38am: 911 call received. Dispatcher begins gathering information. Every police officer on duty is busy on other calls.
4.40am: Call entered in the system.
4.41am: Fire department is dispatched to the scene.
4.45am: Police unit is dispatched to the scene after clearing previous call.
4.50am: Police/fire arrive on the scene.
4.54am: Police/fire report difficulty locating vehicle.
4.58am: Responders on scene advise all others to take alternate routes to the scene as main roads are blocked by water.
4.59am: Responders request boat.
5.00am: 911 call is disconnected between caller and dispatch.
5.02am: Responders report they have located the vehicle.
5.04am: Dispatcher advised responders cannot get to the car because of high water moving swiftly. Responders begin trying to get to vehicle, donning life vests and ropes.
5.16am: Rescue boat arrives and is launched.
5.58am: Rescuers get to vehicle and remove Stevens’ body.
Reneau, who had been a dispatcher for five years with the department, could be heard telling Stevens to stop and calm down.
‘You’re not going to die. I don’t know why you’re freaking out. I know the water level is high… but you freaking out is doing nothing but losing your oxygen so calm down,’ Reneau said in the audio.
Stevens could be heard repeatedly apologizing to the dispatcher, saying she didn’t even see the water before she drove into it and that she had never done anything like this before.
‘This will teach you next time not to drive in the water… I don’t know how you didn’t see it, you had to go right over it. The water just didn’t appear,’ Reneau said.
‘You’re not the only one who has been stuck in the water. So calm down.’
As Stevens became more frantic, she repeatedly asked how much longer it would take for first responders to get to her because no one was helping her.
‘Am I not on the phone with you trying to get you some help?’ Reneau responded.
At one point, Stevens even apologized for ‘being rude’ to the dispatcher due to her constant pleas for help.
When Stevens said she need to vomit, Reneau hit back saying: ‘Well you’re in water, you can throw up it’s not going to matter.’
Stevens eventually asked the dispatcher to pray with her while she waited for first responders to arrive and Reneau replied: ‘You go ahead and start the prayer.’
She told the dispatcher that she could see some people standing on their balcony watching and noted she thought it was ‘pretty rude’ they weren’t helping her.
Reneau responded: ‘A lot of people have called in on you, so don’t think people are just sitting there. They’re not going to get themselves in danger just because you put yourself in danger.’
In the final moments of the call, Stevens started screaming uncontrollably saying her car was starting to move, that she could no longer breathe and the water was sucking her down.
Stevens repeatedly told the dispatcher that she was going to die because the water was rising up past her chest and had engulfed the inside of her SUV
Police said the 911 operator had dispatched Fort Smith Fire and Police units to help Stevens but it made it difficult because she couldn’t describe her exact location. Pictured above is dashcam video of authorities searching for her car
Reneau could be heard telling the first responders searching for her: ‘I’m on the phone with her now and she is legit freaking out. She says the vehicle is now moving in the water.’
After it started to sound like Stevens was speaking underwater, Reneau said: ‘Miss Debbie? Miss Debbie’ before saying ‘Oh my god. Did they find her? She’s under water now.’
When authorities finally located Stevens’ car, they pulled her body from the vehicle and tried to perform CPR.
She had already drowned.
Police Chief Danny Baker said he could completely understand the ‘disgust and concern’ people have had over the interaction between the dispatcher and Stevens.
‘It’s a tragic thing, I understand that. Is there maybe things we need to look at in our response? Absolutely,’ he said.
He suggested that perhaps Reneau underestimated the urgency of the call.
Baker said 911 had been inundated with calls at the time from people who were also stranded in flood waters.
There were nine officers and four 911 dispatchers on duty at the time.
‘Probably having another dispatcher in there at that time would have been helpful but remember we’re talking at 4.30 in the morning so getting folks down there to assist with dispatch would have been difficult,’ Baker said.
Reneau, who had been a dispatcher for five years with the department, could be heard telling Stevens to stop and calm down repeatedly throughout the call
Reneau had previously been commended on the police department’s Facebook page for being a ‘professional, dedicated and outstanding’ dispatcher
‘I believe that everything was done that was humanely possible given the circumstances at that time to save Ms Stevens life. I’m horribly sorry that it wasn’t possible.’
Reneau had resigned from the department two weeks earlier and was working her last shift.
It is not clear if Stevens’ 911 call was the last one she took.
She had previously been commended on the police department’s Facebook page for being a ‘professional, dedicated and outstanding’ dispatcher.
Baker acknowledged Reneau would have faced disciplinary action if she still worked with the department but said he couldn’t see anything that would have been cause for termination or a criminal investigation.
He said the police department would be investigating its policies into responses and their dispatch center in the wake of Stevens’ death.
Police acknowledged the 911 call sounded ‘calloused and uncaring at times’ but insisted that ‘sincere efforts’ were made to try and located Stevens.
They said the 911 operator had dispatched Fort Smith Fire and Police units to help her but it made it difficult because she couldn’t describe her exact location.
Authorities said that when they did eventually locate her, rising waters made an immediate rescue impossible.
An officer had donned a life vest and was ready to go into the water with a rope tied to him because the speed and volume of water was to much.