A woman from Fort Smith in Arkansas was on the verge of drowning when her vehicle was washed off the road by floodwaters while delivering newspapers and was unable to escape.
She cried out for help on 911, pleading:
“Please help me, I don’t wanna die.”
But what she got was a cold reception.
The last words she lived to hear was the emergency dispatcher who told her to “shut up.”
Debra Stevens, 47, ultimately drowned.
The audio from the 911 call between #DebraStevens and Satan’s charm #donnareneau (dispatcher) has been released. It’s incredibly heartbreaking, unbelievable and disgusting. On behalf of America, Donna Reneau you are a disgrace! Debra Stevens, Rest In Peace https://t.co/dnFCvHLwdC— I’m Whomever (@juliejbarker) August 31, 2019
The dispatcher Donna Reneau, who had been working for the Fort Smith Police Department for five years as a certified dispatch training officer, was on her final shift after handing in her resignation on August 9.
Massive outrage sparked after the heartbreaking audio recording was released on Thursday in which you can hear Reneau yelling at Stevens in her time of crisis.
Dispatcher should go to jail & be fined.— Cosmic Dust Ara * ☽ Pamela ☾ * (@CosmicDustAra) August 31, 2019
She should have helped the victim stay calm... possibly part of why this turned out the way it did. The family should sue. I would even though it wouldn't anyone back. But as example never to happen again! 911 is for HELP
It’s times like these I want vengeful ghost to be real.— Tamara Gondwe (@gondwetamara1) September 2, 2019
There are plenty of jobs that one can blow off and do what ever you want on your last day after you’ve given 2 week notice. 911 dispatcher is not one of those jobs. This is absolutely horrifying knowing the last thing this woman heard was somebody chastising her. How sad.— Jon (@StombaughJon) August 30, 2019
In the recording, you can hear Reneau lecturing Stevens.
“Ms. Debbie you’re going to need to shut up. I need you to listen to me.”
Stevens, who was delivering newspapers for the Southwest Times Record, was sobbing on the phone as the water level was rising to her chest.
“I’m scared. I’ve never had anything like this happen to me before.”
“This will teach you next time don’t drive in the water…I don’t see how you didn’t see it, you had to go right over it, so?”
An increasingly frantic Stevens cried:
“These people are out. They can all see me, they’re all standing out, they’re watching me…”
Stevens, lacking patience, continued yelling.
“Miss Debbie, you’re going to have to shut up, OK? I need you to listen. Listen to me!”
I have never in all my years working in 911... I’ve answered many many heartbreaking calls, some that still haunt me, but this is beyond gut-wrenching. As she’s begging for help... https://t.co/I2GM23181o— Donna Rutledge (@dcrutledge) August 30, 2019
According to KFTA, the SUV was completely covered in water by the time first responders arrived.
In the 911 call, Reneau told Stevens “to stop” and “you’re not going to die. I don’t know why you’re freaking out.”
Police stated Reneau had not committed a crime while responding to Stevens’ distress call.
Debra Stevens was crying and dying while a dispatcher told her that maybe next time she wouldn't drive in the water. Horrifying. Interim police chief is that it wasn't a fireable offence and no crime was committed. If it's not a crime to mock someone while they die, it should be.— Michael 🇺🇲 (@ringlikefire) August 29, 2019
According to the department’s statement released on Facebook, officers could not understand Stevens’ description of her location, making it difficult for first responders to reach her.
“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.”
I heard the tapes. She was so scared and I am heartbroken for Debra Stevens' family. I wish peace and prayers to Debra's family. I have no sane words for the way the dispatcher treated Ms. Stevens. #karma— sue (@pontiacsue) August 31, 2019
This is so heartbreaking! I read the article & cried! The dispatcher who took that call should be charged with manslaughter! Obviously she needed to quit bc she was unable to display a calm, caring demeanor toward someone in distress! 😢😢 Rest in the arms of Jesus, Debbie!— Lynn Metzger (@narniagirl55) August 30, 2019
Fort Smith Interim Police Chief Danny Baker said he understood “the disgust and concern in regards to the interactions between the dispatcher and Ms. Stevens.”
“It’s a tragic thing; I understand that. Is there maybe things we need to look at in our response? Absolutely.”
Baker mitigated the tragedy by explaining how the department was inundated that morning with 911 calls from others stranded in floodwaters.
“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.”
Emergency procedures for a person trapped in a vehicle in rising floodwaters advise telling the person to exit through their window and climb onto the roof of their vehicle so they can be spotted by rescue workers and not drown as quickly.
Stevens was never told to do this by Reneau.
“I believe that everything was done that was humanely [sic] possible given the circumstances at that time to save Ms. Stevens life. I’m horribly sorry that it wasn’t possible.”
Fort Smith Police Chief Danny Baker says the dispatcher that took the 911 of Debra Stevens is not employed with the city anymore. It was likely her last call as a dispatcher. #rivervalleynews pic.twitter.com/MW8P5qTzfL— Kelly O'Neill (@kellyoneillTV) August 29, 2019
A look inside the Fort Smith dispatch center. pic.twitter.com/We6Hq6ddVA— Kelly O'Neill (@kellyoneillTV) August 29, 2019
Baker told reporters that Reneau may have underestimated Stevens’s call and that there will be an internal investigation to see if policies could change to prevent a similar death.
“Obviously, we can’t investigate someone who no longer works here. However, (we’ve launched) an investigation into our responses, our policies, our dispatch center.”
“I’ve been in communication with the fire chief, and we’re looking at how we can enhance our training for our dispatchers.”
At a MINIMUM there is a civil law suit waiting here for this poor family against the city and the dispatcher herself. There are punitive damages here.— (((Seth))) (@FreshGroundSeth) August 31, 2019
Stevens was a life-long Fort Smith resident known as a caring person who was passionate about helping the elderly.
According to a family member, Rebeca Stewart:
“She would go out of her way, she was a very giving loving person.”
Knowing how to survive emergencies is something we all can brush up on with the book How to Survive Anything: From Animal Attacks to the End of the World (and everything in between), available here.
Listen to the first two episodes of George Takei’s podcast, ‘Oh Myyy Pod!‘, where we explore the racially charged videos that have taken the internet by storm.
Be sure to subscribe here and never miss an episode.