Newly released 911 audio reveals the final moments of an Arkansas newspaper delivery woman as she drowned in her car. Debra Stevens repeatedly asked for help during the call, but was criticized by the dispatcher for "freaking out."
Debra Stevens, 47, was following her usual newspaper delivery route for the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith, Arkansas, last Saturday morning when a flash flood event overtook her SUV. At first, Stevens called a family member, but she called 911 once she realized she could not get out of her car.
In a desperate call lasting more than 20 minutes, an increasingly panicked Stevens pleads with the operator to send help. "I have an emergency — a severe emergency," Stevens said. "I can't get out and I'm scared to death, ma'am. Can you please help me?"
Stevens repeatedly tells the operator that she thinks she is going to die. She begins to cry and says she does not know how to swim.
"You're not going to die," dispatcher Donna Reneau said. "I don't know why you're freaking out. You freaking out is doing nothing but losing your oxygen in there. So calm down."
Stevens says she didn't realize she was driving into floodwaters and repeatedly apologized for the situation. "I'm scared. I'm sorry. I couldn't see the water when I came up on it. It just all of a sudden hit me," she said.
Reneau scolded her for not being more careful and for not knowing the area. "This will teach you next time don't drive in the water," Reneau said. "We'll get you help and get you out of there."
Fifteen minutes into the call, Reneau began taking other calls from stranded residents. Later in the call, Reneau struggles to explain to firefighters where to find Stevens. She tells them that Stevens is "freaking out."
"Miss Debbie, you're going to have to shut up," the dispatcher said. "Can you honk your horn?"
"My horn is dead," Stevens said. "Everything is dead."
Stevens prayed and asked Reneau to pray for her. Stevens continued to say that she couldn't breathe and was going to die.
"Miss Debbie, you're breathing just fine because you are screaming at me. So, calm down. I know you're scared. Hold on for me."
Stevens does not respond.
"Miss Debbie? Miss Debbie?" Reneau said. "Oh my God. She sounds like she's under water now."
Rescue boats didn't reach Stevens' car for another hour after the 911 call ended. First responders then tried, unsuccessfully, to revive her.
According to officials, Fort Smith Fire and Police units were inundated with 911 calls from others also stranded in floodwaters at the same time. They said they had difficulty locating Stevens because she could not describe her exact location.
"While the operator's response to this extremely tense and dynamic event sounds calloused and uncaring at times, sincere efforts were being made to locate and save Mrs. Stevens," the Fort Smith Police Department said in a statement Thursday.
"I am heartbroken for this tragic loss of life and my prayers are with Debra's family and friends," Chief of Police Danny Baker said. 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."
According to police, Reneau was working her final shift the day Stevens died.
"We can't investigate someone who no longer works here," Baker said. "However an investigation into our policies, our responses, our dispatch center. We are looking at what we can do to increase training for our dispatchers, swift water rescues and other things."
First published on August 31, 2019 / 12:20 PM
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