An Arkansas woman, Debra Stevens, was delivering newspapers during a pre-dawn storm on August 24th when she encountered a flash flood. A news release from the Fort Smith Police department said her SUV had been “swept away” and had “settled in a copse of trees off the roadway and amid rising waters.”
Stevens called 911 and the call was answered by dispatcher Donna Reneau. Reneau had recently given her notice and this was her last day on the job.
The police have released an audio recording of Stevens’ desperate last moments during which Reneau is heard saying, “Well, this will teach you next time don’t drive in the water.”
Here is an excerpt from the phone call.
Stevens: “I can’t get out and I’m scared to death ma’am. Please help me. I don’t want to die.”
Reneau: “You’re not going to die. Hold on for a minute.”
Stevens: “How long’s it gonna take?”
Reneau: “I don’t have an officer available, so it’s going to take a minute. So, I’m gonna try to get somebody out there to you, okay?”
Stevens: “How long’s it gonna take? Please –”
Reneau: “Listen to me. I need you to calm down and hold on.”
Stevens: “I’m just scared ma’am. I’m sorry.”
Reneau: “I understand that you’re scared but there’s nothing I can do sitting in a chair. So, you’re going to have to hold on and I’m gonna send you somebody, okay?”
Stevens: “I’m scared. I never had anything like this happen to me before. I’m scared.”
Reneau: “Well, this will teach you next time don’t drive in the water.”
Stevens: “I couldn’t see it ma’am. I’m sorry or I wouldn’t have.”
Reneau: “I don’t know how you didn’t see it. You had to go right over. So…”
When rescuers arrived at Stevens’ vehicle 80 minutes later, she had drowned.
The Fort Smith Police department issued a statement:
The 911 operator who took the call dispatched Fort Smith Fire and Police units who were inundated with 911 calls from other citizens also stranded in flood waters.
Also exacerbating response and rescue efforts were the facts that Mrs. Stevens was having trouble describing her exact location and flooding limited the ability of first responders to reach her. When first responders were finally able to pinpoint the location of Mrs. Stevens’ vehicle, the swift, rising water made immediate rescue impossible. An officer on scene removed his duty gear, donned a life vest, and was ready to enter the current tied to a rope but the speed and volume of water made this attempt futile. When first responders were finally able to reach Mrs. Stevens and extract her from the vehicle, she had tragically succumbed to drowning.
The department’s chief, Danny Baker, issued a statement.
We are heartbroken for this tragic loss of life and my prayers are with Debra’s family and friends.
All of our first responders who attempted to save Mrs. Stevens are distraught over the outcome. For every one of us, saving lives is at the very core of who we are and why we do what we do. When we are unsuccessful, it hurts.
(Scroll down for a timeline from the morning of August 24th.)
Although Reneau took the proper actions and rescue workers were dispatched within minutes, it’s so sad that Stevens’ final terrifying moments were spent speaking with someone so lacking in compassion.